Ismaeel Fadel is a junior at University City High School, where he transferred following a 2017 incident at Madison High in which he was called a terrorist. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

When Ismaeel Fadel looked up at the electronic board at the front of his advanced biology class, he saw someone had posted “Ish is a terrorist” next to emojis of a plane heading toward two buildings.

Fadel, who is Muslim and Iraqi, said other James Madison High School students began to laugh at his expense. He told them the material displayed was not funny, but the same racist language and imagery evoking the Sept. 11 attacks was subsequently posted multiple times in place of where students usually listed their names.

Fadel, who was then a 14-year-old freshman at the Clairemont school, said no one stepped in to stop what was taking place. He bolted from the classroom on the verge of tears.

“They were labeling me as a criminal,” Fadel said. “I was getting pissed.”

The previously unreported 2017 incident provides a window into the type of bullying San Diego Unified hoped to prevent with an anti-Islamophobia initiative it later shelved under pressure from a lawsuit that was recently settled.

The targeting of Fadel, and the aftermath, also indicate the district was somewhat ill-equipped to address anti-Muslim activity.

Fadel says the administration at Madison High did little to support him, and he ultimately transferred to another district high school.

Meanwhile, an academic support teacher who called for an internal investigation of the incident ultimately filed a complaint with the federal government because of what he deemed the district’s lackluster response. The teacher alleges he has faced retaliation as a result.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigated what happened to Fadel. It found that while some parts of San Diego Unified’s response were laudatory, other elements were concerning, including that the district did not have notice of a previous incident in which Fadel was compared to a terrorist.

San Diego Unified settled the matter with the agency last year before it was determined whether the district complied with civil rights laws. The district pledged to take certain steps as part of the agreement, though it did not admit to any wrongdoing. The federal government continues to monitor the district’s compliance with the agreement.

Fleeing Violence, Then Taunted as a Terrorist

Fadel, who’s now 16 and has seven siblings, was born in Iraq and spent his early years there amid great turmoil.

His family said they decided to flee in 2006 due to increasing violence sweeping the nation, including the murder of Fadel’s maternal grandfather. Fadel’s father also said he was imprisoned and tortured for a time.

The family fled first to Syria before coming to the United States in 2008.

Fadel enrolled at Madison High in fall 2016. He followed in the footsteps of an older sister who had graduated after a positive experience and joined an older brother who was a sophomore. But Fadel said he was not a fan of the school from the beginning.

“I feel like all the teachers care about is getting their paycheck,” he said. “They don’t care what you do.”

The Feb. 23, 2017, incident in which he was called a terrorist only made things worse.

Fadel said that once he fled the room, he began crying and punching the wall. His hands bled, and he still has some scars on his left hand to show for it.

Fadel recalls that Bill Cunningham, an academic support teacher assigned to the biology class, joined him in the hallway and told him that he had his back. Accompanied by Cunningham, Fadel reported the incident to a vice principal.

But Fadel said the school did little to improve the climate for him in the aftermath. He remained in the biology class and said he was encouraged by a school counselor to pursue anger management classes.

“I was like, ‘Anger management?’” Fadel said. “If you stop being racist, I don’t have to be angry. Why don’t they take racist management?”

He finished out his freshman year and then transferred to University City High School along with an older brother.

San Diego Unified spokeswoman Maureen Magee said school leaders met repeatedly with Fadel to ensure his well-being.

“The district is not aware that he was told to take anger management classes, which are not offered at Madison,” Magee wrote in an email. “The district can confirm that staff followed protocols and offered a restorative conference with his classmates to discuss the incident.”

Teacher Seeks Investigation, Says Retaliation Ensued

Cunningham said he was not surprised by Fadel’s departure from Madison High after the incident.

“My fear all along was that we were driving this kid and his family off the campus by not responding appropriately,” Cunningham said. “That’s what happened.”

After helping Fadel report the incident, Cunningham said a few days passed without mention of it. When he told Vice Principal Robin Peters he wanted to file a written report, Cunningham said he was told not to worry about it.

That left him feeling uneasy, so he sent an email to various officials requesting an investigation. Included on the email were Peters, biology teacher William Bishop and a representative of San Diego Unified’s Office of Youth Advocacy.

Soon after, Cunningham said then-Madison Principal Richard Nash removed him from working in Bishop’s room and threatened him with disciplinary action for reporting what happened to Fadel.

“I interpreted this as an attempt at intimidation in the hopes I would drop the matter,” Cunningham alleged in a written complaint to the federal government. “His animus towards Ismaeel was apparent.”

Cunningham said his belief that Madison and the school district were doing little to address the Fadel incident was what prompted him to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in late July 2017.

“[Fadel] not only had his civil rights violated by the principal of Madison High School, Richard Nash, but to some extent by Mr. Nash’s employers, San Diego Unified School District,” Cunningham wrote in the complaint. “SDUSD is ultimately responsible for ensuring the students in their district are provided a safe environment in which they can learn and are protected from discrimination.”

Nash, who left Madison last year to become principal of Poway High School, said Cunningham was removed from Bishop’s classroom because of inflammatory emails he wrote to Bishop and copied others on regarding the teacher’s handling of the Fadel incident.

“His communication with the other employee was unprofessional and public, and it required some steps to be taken to ensure there wasn’t a hostile work environment between the two,” Nash said.

Nash also said he was “genuinely disheartened” by what happened to Fadel.

Asked about Cunningham’s retaliation allegations, Magee said “employee privacy rights prevent us from discussing employee discipline issues.”

She also said the district could not comment on the discussion between Cunningham and Peters, but said a bullying and intimidation incident report was filed.

A Federal Agency Investigates

The Office for Civil Rights launched a probe of the Fadel incident and the district’s response under its authority from Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits “discrimination on the bases of race, color, or national origin in programs and activities operated by recipients of federal financial assistance.”

The agency told Cunningham in a May 2018 letter that it reviewed information provided by him and the district. It also interviewed him and Nash.

The district reported that school administrators made contact with Fadel three times after the incident “to check in, see how he was doing and offer him counseling.”

San Diego Unified also told the agency that Nash assigned two vice principals to investigate the incident the day after it occurred, and the vice principals formally initiated their investigation four days after the incident. They ultimately interviewed 10 of 33 students in the biology class, including Fadel.

“The vice principals determined that the incident did in fact occur but were unable to identify the responsible party, as the third party software allows students to post anonymously,” the agency wrote to Cunningham.

According to witness statements, Bishop removed the offensive image from the electronic board and later told students about expectations for technology use in his class.

The agency said the district’s notes, however, indicated at least one of the students reported that “there was a similar incident earlier in the school year where an image of an explosion and a reference to [Fadel] was posted to a board at the front of the classroom.”

“Harassment of a student who is from or is perceived to be from the Middle East through the creation and distribution of images portraying him as a ‘terrorist’ during a district activity or program can be a form of national origin discrimination, if the harassment is sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive and it limits or denies the student’s access to the district’s education program,” the agency wrote. “According to the district’s investigative report, the February 23 incident caused the student to immediately leave the classroom.”

Concerns With the District’s Response

In a letter to Cunningham, the Office for Civil Rights said that when San Diego Unified was notified about what happened to Fadel, it “took timely, responsive action by interviewing the student and nine other students, re-interviewing the students, and checking-in on the student subsequent to the incident.”

But it also identified “several areas of concern.”

The first was that it did not receive any information from San Diego Unified about why the district did not have notice of the first incident in which Fadel was compared to a terrorist.

The second issue was that the agency received no documentation indicating whether San Diego Unified assessed whether the two incidents considered together created a hostile environment for Fadel.

“If the two incidents combined resulted in a hostile environment for the student based on national origin, the district would be required to take steps to end the harassment, remedy its effects, and prevent its recurrence,” the agency wrote.

The agency also said district records indicated that a vice principal left a voicemail in English for Fadel’s parents, even though the district was aware they have limited English proficiency.

In addition, the agency said the initial evidence it reviewed raised a concern that the district did not follow its written grievance procedure for addressing reports of harassment on the basis of national origin.

“In order to complete the investigation, OCR would need to interview more district witnesses, the student and/or his parents,” the agency wrote.

The agency said Fadel and his family were “inaccessible.” Fadel said he never heard from the federal government.

San Diego Unified Agrees to a Resolution

Before the federal agency reached a determination about whether San Diego Unified complied with applicable laws, the district signed a voluntary resolution agreement.

The district did not admit to any violation of law as part of the May 2018 deal, but pledged to take several actions.

They included:

  • Issuing a statement to Madison High students, parents and staff stating the school does not tolerate harassment based on race, color or national origin
  • Issuing a memo to school staff offering guidance on responding to complaints of harassment on the basis of race, color or national origin
  • Drafting an outcome letter about the investigation of the Fadel incident, including whether the district found that the alleged conduct occurred and whether it constituted harassment based on national origin

“OCR will continue to monitor the agreement until the district is in full compliance and cannot provide additional information about the case,” a U.S. Department of Education spokesman wrote in an email earlier this month.

Magee said the district provided a draft anti-harassment statement and draft letter for the federal government’s review last May and is waiting for the agency’s final approval of the documents.

Asked if there was anything the district should have done differently when responding to the Fadel incident, Magee said San Diego Unified should have notified Fadel’s parents in writing “of the outcome of the informal resolution in their native language.”

“Instead, after prior efforts to reach the parents, the district communicated verbally with an older sibling, who was listed as an emergency contact by the family,” Magee said.

Magee acknowledged the district has not created any new procedures in the aftermath, but said the district has created multiple events, student activities and school-wide communications to protect students from bullying, including a “Be the Change” week and providing a safe way for students for students to anonymously report incidents.

Legal Battle Over Anti-Islamophobia Plan

Meanwhile, San Diego Unified recently settled a federal lawsuit targeting its planned anti-Islamophobia efforts. The case quickly became a cause célèbre in some corners of the right-wing internet.

The events at issue dated back to the San Diego school board’s July 2016 direction to staff to develop an anti-Islamophobia initiative.

Then in April 2017 – two months after the Fadel incident – the board voted to adopt action steps for the initiative. The district said it did so in response to what it claimed were increased instances of Islamophobia sparked by President Donald Trump’s campaign.

Some of the proposed steps within the initiative included sending a letter to staff and parents addressing Islamophobia, and providing additional supportive links on the district’s “Report Bullying” webpage.

In May 2017, five families and two local organizations filed suit seeking to block implementation of the initiative. They argued in part that there was no Muslim bullying crisis, but rather the initiative was a pretext to establish the district’s preference for Muslim students in violation of the First Amendment.

As part of the recent legal settlement, the district agreed to circulate a memo to area superintendents and school principals stating that while the First Amendment does not prohibit the study of religion, it requires such content to be presented in a manner that does not promote one religion over another.

After previously deciding not to move forward with its anti-Islamophobia activities, San Diego instead teamed with the Anti-Defamation League to implement a broader anti-bullying initiative, known as “No Place for Hate.”

District’s Actions Speak Louder Than Words

But Cunningham said the city’s rhetoric and anti-bullying programming don’t match its actions.

“As far as the big picture is concerned, the district is very good at developing policies so they can say, ‘We have this, this and that,’” Cunningham said. “At the end of the day, they don’t do a very good job of protecting the kids.”

He proposed in his complaint to the federal government the creation of a community advisory board independent of the district with genuine investigative and punitive powers.

As for Fadel, he said he has enjoyed his time at University City High School much better than at Madison and hasn’t been the target of any similar anti-Muslim bullying.

But he said San Diego Unified’s claim that it doesn’t tolerate racism isn’t believable.

To make his point, Fadel highlighted that no student got disciplined for the incident at Madison, nor did anyone apologize for what happened.

“I wanted an apology,” he said.

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