Two Hunterdon County, New Jersey high school teachers showed a movie clip about Nobel Peace Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai in their history classrooms. Now, one of them — a Muslim woman of Palestinian descent — alleges that decision contributed to her being fired in June, despite the fact that she showed the clip at the suggestion of her white coworker.
Sireen Hashem alleges that the movie was referenced by school administrators as one example of mounting tensions between her and school administrators due to her identity. When Hashem pointed out that her coworker Lindsay Wagner had also shown the same clip, she says that the superintendent responded by referencing her ethnicity and religion.
“You are not Lindsay,” said Christina Steffner, the school superintendent according to a lawsuit filed by Hashem against school administrators. The court document noted, “Lindsay Wagner is not Arab, not Palestinian, and not Muslim.”
In a statement emailed to ThinkProgress, Steffner said that the statements attributed her are “factually wrong” and that they “may even be defamatory.”
Hashem alleges she faced a years’ long effort by school administers to have her “removed from her teaching position, solely because of her heritage and religion.”
The next issue arose in March 2014 when a student’s parents complained after Hashem participated in a discussion of Lemon Tree, a book about an unlikely friendship between a Palestinian man, Bashir Al-Khayri, and an Israeli woman named Dalia Ashkenazi Landau. Hashem was asked to translate a discussion with Al-Khayri by the teacher who taught the book. Even though it was not her classroom, her participation in the class drew scorn of the student, who later wrote a post on Facebook that called Hashem’s brother a terrorist and said that she was “attempting to instill anti-Semitic views in students,” according to the complaint.
After that, Susan Cooley, principal of Hunterdon Central Regional High School, told Hashem “that she should not mention Islam or the Middle East in her class. Defendant Cooley further stated that Plaintiff should not bring her culture, life experience or background into the classroom.”
Hashem was again remanded in May 2014, when she asked students to compare the actions of John Brown’s raid at Harpers’ Ferry, West Virginia to the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon on 9/11. Hashem’s lawyers contend that the question was “commonly used by teachers throughout the United States.”
In April 2015, Hashem was handed a “poor evaluation” and told that her contract could not be renewed because of her performance. She asked that the decision be overturned at a Regional Board of Education meeting in June. About 60 parents and students showed up to support her.
Two days later, she was informed in writing that the Board would not overrule the decision to suspend her contract.
Superintendent Christina Steffner uniformly denied the allegations brought by Hashem.
“I respect the personnel confidentiality rights of all employees, and it would be inappropriate for me to publicly comment about job performance or personnel matters,” she said in a statement. “However, I want to very clearly state that Ms. Hashem’s allegations against me are untrue. I have never made a personnel decision based on any improper purpose.”
Steffner further vowed to fight the allegations in court.
“It is unfortunate that the district and I will have to defend this case, but will do so vigorously, so that the real facts may be presented in court,” she added.
In the meantime, former students have waged their own campaign in support of Hashem. Many have stood in solidarity with her on social media by using the hashtag #FightforHashem.
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Hashem has a rating of 4.15 out of 5 on ratemyteachers.com. One student, who gave Hashem five stars, wrote on the site: “Hunterdon Central lost an amazing teacher over false comments a student in my class made her firing was a huge mistake and any school who hires her next should consider themselves lucky she has world experience and she is a hard worker central needs more teachers like Mrs H.”