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Online furor over a student's hijab engulfs a liberal town

by Tribune News Service | October 22, 2021 at 10:00 p.m.

MAPLEWOOD, N.J. -- A 7-year-old girl came home from school earlier this month upset, impatient to tell her mother a story.

The second grader said her teacher in Maplewood had begun to pull off a hijab she wears as an observant Muslim, exposing her hair and prompting her to hold on to the head covering, the family's lawyer said.

The girl's mother recounted the story on Facebook. Then, an Olympic medalist who fences in a hijab and lives in the same New Jersey school district denounced the incident on Instagram, where she has 384,000 followers.

Soon, the story was cascading across the internet, drawing news crews and police cars to the front of the elementary school as the controversy roiled the suburb.

Fundamental facts surrounding the Oct. 6 interaction remained in dispute, but Reddit and Instagram were awash in opinions. New Jersey's governor weighed in on Twitter, and a statewide Islamic group demanded the teacher's "immediate firing."

It was the fifth week of school. The teacher, Tamar Herman, has said that she brushed back the girl's hooded sweatshirt because it was covering her eyes, unaware the girl was not wearing her usual hijab underneath. The "moment" she realized it, Herman said, the student "kept the hood on."

But the secondslong interaction between a white teacher and a Black student was already firmly in the grip of an online maw, underscoring the extraordinary power of social media to quickly pass judgment, with little regard for accuracy or fallout.

"It's made clear what was always kind of clear: There's dividing lines around race and religion and identity that we have yet to really tackle in substantive ways," said Khadijah Costley White, who teaches journalism and media studies at Rutgers University and runs SOMA Justice, a nonprofit created to promote racial justice in the school district.

By last week, administrators for the school district, South Orange-Maplewood, had fielded more than 2,000 emails -- most from outside the state and nearly all calling for the teacher's termination, they said. The teacher sought police protection after people showed up at her house and threatened her online, her lawyer said.

Recess and lunch at the school, Seth Boyden Elementary, were held indoors. Last Friday, families were told that students might be asked to enter and exit through the back door to shield them from news cameras or protesters.

"What I keep trying to tell people is that there is a child at the center of this," said Costley White, who also lives in Maplewood. "She is a neighbor. She has to return to this school. And this community has to exist after this is all over."

Because the claim involved potential bias over a religious item worn to cover hair and maintain modesty, the school district stopped its investigation and it was taken over by the Maplewood Police Department and the Essex County Prosecutor's Office.

"At this point we're just trying to determine what occurred," said Katherine Carter, a spokesperson for the prosecutor's office.

Herman, in a statement, said that she asked the student to "raise the hood of her sweatshirt" because it was covering her eyes.

"With her mask on too, her whole face was covered. I gently got her attention by brushing up the front of her hood," said Herman, who has been placed on paid administrative leave.

"The moment I realized she was not wearing her usual hijab underneath, she kept the hood on," she said. "And the learning went on."

The student returned to school Monday, her lawyer, Robert Tarver, said. Her mother, Cassandra Wyatt, who also wears a hijab, appeared Thursday at a news conference arranged by Tarver but did not comment. She has told ABC-7 Eyewitness News that her daughter no longer wanted to wear a head scarf.

"The teacher put her hands on the child," said Tarver, adding that another person in the classroom had recounted the story similarly. "It was not a hoodie. It was a hijab. I have seen the actual clothing."

The same day, another parent complained that Herman threw a student's drink in the trash, telling the child it "wasn't water," a permitted beverage, according to an email sent by the family and shared with Tarver.

The 493-student elementary school has the highest percentage of students of color in the district, which educates children from two neighboring commuter towns that are roughly 25 miles from midtown Manhattan. About 56% of students at Seth Boyden are Black, 23% are white, nearly 4% are Latino, 2% are Asian and the rest identify as multiracial.

The school's Parent Teacher Association is active and varied: There is both a vice president of diversity and equity, and a vice president of happiness.

Seth Boyden has also been the focus of efforts to further desegregate the towns' schools. The Black Parents Workshop, a local advocacy group, enlisted Tarver to file a federal lawsuit that accused the district of discriminating against students of color and allowing a wide achievement gap to persist between Black and white students. The lawsuit was settled last year and the district agreed to make changes.

Herman has taught in elementary schools for more than 30 years and often volunteered to teach at a Hebrew school, relatives said. A former student and parents of past students described her as warm and caring, signing off emails, "Together we can make the world a better place!"

Lesson plans she sent to parents in March when classes were being held virtually included an image of a girl wearing a pink hijab while reading.

After a student's father died after contracting the coronavirus, Herman arranged for a retired teacher who had volunteered in her classroom to tutor the child.

"You could see the worry lines on her forehead, making sure each child was being served in the way they needed to be served," said the tutor, Treasure Cohen, who spent one afternoon a week in Herman's classroom before the pandemic as a volunteer with a community program.

"Very passionate. Very concerned about individual needs," said Cohen, 74, who also teaches child development at Montclair State University. "When I tell you she is warm -- that's who Tamar is."

After Herman's Jewish faith was injected into the online discourse, the conversations on Facebook pages popular with residents of Maplewood and South Orange grew even more fraught.

Some commenters noted similarities between Judaism and Islam related to head coverings and modest garb and urged restraint. Other people lashed out angrily.

In 2016, Ibtihaj Muhammad, a fencer who lives in Maplewood, became the first Muslim woman to represent the United States at the Olympics wearing a hijab. Her team won a bronze medal; the next year, Mattel revealed a Barbie doll modeled after Muhammad with brown skin, athletic legs and a white head scarf.

In an Instagram post the day after the school incident, Muhammad wrote that a teacher had "forcibly removed" a student's hijab. "Imagine being a child and stripped of your clothing in front of your classmates," said Muhammad, who urged people to "denounce discrimination" and to call the school and email the district.

Muhammad, who has written a memoir and a children's book to inspire Muslim girls and started a clothing line, could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.

Samantha Harris, one of Herman's lawyers, said the ensuing online furor had caused "tremendous harm" to a veteran teacher.

"This really just speaks to the power of social media to allow a story to spiral out of control before anything is really known," said Harris, a civil rights lawyer.

Tarver called the social media groundswell "unfortunate," but said the publicity had also served a vital purpose. "We have seen too many instances where these things get swept under the rug," he said.

Costley White, who has spoken to the girl's mother about the classroom interaction, said she believed a series of missteps had allowed the controversy to snowball.

Herman, she said, could have contacted the girl's parents to let them know what had happened, as would have likely happened had another article of clothing been removed by a teacher.

The school district, Costley White said, could have done more to defuse the situation by talking to the girl's mother "as a person," rather than quickly turning to the police and prosecutors.

Had there been "just a little tiny bit of humanity," she said, the girl's mother "wouldn't have felt like her only recourse was to share the story on social media."

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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