Accusations of religious intolerance at Concrete K-12

By Jason Miller
posted 3.9.13

Allegations of religious discrimination were leveled against the Concrete School District in February, when the Seattle office for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-WA) announced it would seek a Department of Justice investigation into alleged anti-Islam remarks made by a Concrete K-8 School teacher.

The district immediately defended the teacher, Mary Janda, who has a spotless record in her 20-year career at the school, according to Superintendent Barbara Hawkings.

The incident occurred on Oct. 29, 2012, in a classroom discussion between Janda and her students. Bullying was the topic of conversation, since the students had attended a “Rachel’s Challenge” (anti-bullying) school assembly earlier that month. According to a CAIR press release, Janda “reportedly compared Muslims to Nazis during a class lesson on bullying. The teacher allegedly stated that ‘just like Hitler,’ Muslims train their children from birth to give their lives to Allah and are raised to be martyrs. She also allegedly stated that Muslim children are raised and taught to ‘kill innocents.’”

CAIR-WA contacted the school district in November and inquired about the incident.

Hawkings told Concrete Herald she conducted an investigation and responded to CAIR-WA with the results of the investigation, writing in an e-mail to CAIR-WA’s Civil Rights Coordinator Jennifer Gist, “We have completed our investigation. The incident did not involve any adopted curriculum. The building has been focused on bullying. We had participated in Rachel’s Challenge and staff, in conjunction with this national program, was relating stories, news items, or histories of people who have suffered at the hands of bullies as a reminder for all of us to be kind to each other. We welcome communication with the family.”

Hawkings’ response “pretty much dismisses our complaint altogether,” said Gist at a Feb. 19 press conference CAIR called to announce it would seek the Dept. of Justice investigation.

The announcement of the press conference brought Seattle television news crews to Concrete, where they were given a statement from the school district and a copy of a letter dated Dec. 12, 2012, in which Janda explained her version of events to Hawkings.

“As part of and in conjunction with [the Rachel’s Challenge program], I relate stories, news items, or histories of people who have suffered at the hands of bullies as a reminder for all of us to be kind to each other,” Janda wrote in her letter.

Janda had mentioned Hitler, “and the discussion led to other groups who employ extreme acts, such as Hamas and the Taliban. … The point I was attempting to make was the connection that people who intend on imposing their will on others are bullies, whether they be Nazis or others, whether they be students or adults. I was very clear I was not talking about Muslim believers or Arabs in general, but people who were trained to kill, groups that bombed and attacked people, and did not care that innocent people were being killed.

“When [the student] … said, ‘My father is a Muslim and these statements are not true,’ I explained to her that I was not talking about Arabs and Muslims in general, but groups that chose to impose their will by training people to intimidate and kill other people. This discussion was not about religious beliefs. It is related to a state mandate that public schools teach students about bullying and not allow it.

“I am surprised and saddened that no one from the [student’s family] contacted me about [the student’s] perceptions of the day’s discussion. I would have hoped to have had an opportunity to personally recount the substance of that day’s work and engage in a dialogue to dispel any misinterpretations.

“Likewise, I am also surprised that the organization filing the complaint did not contact me to hear my account of the class discussion before publicly criticizing me and my employer. I had absolutely no intention of, nor did I disparage anyone’s religious beliefs, and I regret any lingering misunderstandings.”

Hawkings likewise decried CAIR-WA’s actions, calling the allegation “irresponsible.”

“This allegation of unlawful or inappropriate discrimination based on religion is false,” Hawkings said in a statement. “The teacher involved is an experienced and outstanding educator who treats every student with dignity and respect. The parents and/or student involved have never met with the teacher or school district to file a complaint or express a concern.

“We find this allegation to be irresponsible concerning an issue of great importance to our district and staff. We strive to treat every student with dignity and respect, and do not discriminate against any individual because of his/her religious beliefs.”

When the story was first reported on Seattle news channels, Facebook chatter overwhelmingly supported Janda. Two students who claimed to have been in the classroom during the October discussion stated that the student who raised the allegations against Janda had misunderstood Janda’s comments.

Gist told Concrete Herald that CAIR-WA would “welcome any outcome” and thank DOJ for its work if its investigation revealed the allegations to be baseless.

But that’s small comfort for Eric Archuletta, who has been helping Concrete for the past four years as it navigates a path back to vitality. Archuletta holds a Masters in Environment and Community, and is a frequent lecturer on rural community revitalization, grassroots movements, and strengthening community resilience. He noted systemic problems in the way CAIR-WA handled the report of alleged misconduct.

“Social media can play an effective but dangerous role in shaping public opinion,” he said. “Effective organizations use every tool and tactic available to get their message out: press releases, press conferences, a Web site, rallies, etc.  Unfortunately the message is not always fact-based, but convinces its audience that it’s true. When this occurs, misinformation dominates public perception.”

Gist noted that “our goal is to work with parents and students, to ensure a quality education for everyone in Concrete. We’re not trying to make a personal attack on anyone in particular.”

According to a press release from CAIR, it is America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization. Its mission is to “enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding,” according to the release.

Read Concrete Elementary School teacher Mary Janda’s statement.
Read Concrete School District Superintendent Barbara Hawkings’ statement.

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