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Religious harassment of Muslim family by southeast Delaware school district

by, October 12, 2006

Links to documents cited in this report immediately follow it.

Religious harassment in a southeast Delaware school district traumatized two young Muslim girls and prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene. The family moved to another school district and filed suit against the Cape Henlopen School District. The case paints an appalling picture of school officials fostering a campaign against girls, ages 10 and 11, by their classmates.

The Cape Henlopen district is in the same county as the Indian River School District, where officials' aggressive Christianity prompted a lawsuit by two families and forced one of them, a Jewish family, to flee the district. (Please see our coverage of that case.)

On the September 2003 anniversary of the 9/11 attack, "Nancy Doe's" fourth-grade teacher, Cindy Cunningham, a defendant in the case, gave a lesson in which she allegedly stated that "Muslims believe the Koran teaches war and hatred" and "Christians went to Afghanistan to help people, and in return, Muslims bombed the Christians."

According to the complaint, during the lesson, Cunningham pointed out that Nancy's mother Jane Doe dressed the same way as the Afghan women and was "one of them."

Children pick up on teacher's cue
Children in the classroom picked up on Cunningham's cue and began tormenting Nancy. Jane Doe met with Principal Janet Maull, who said she would speak to Cunningham.

Cunninham assured Doe she would not use the same lesson materials again. But, according to the complaint, "Cunningham continued to describe Muslims as terrorists" to the class.

Doe tried to meet with, then wrote to Brandenberger, who never responded. Principal Maull again told Doe that the anti-Muslim materials had been removed from the class, but, says the complaint, "they had not."

Meanwhile, Cunningham presented religious teachings about Christmas and "biblical prophesies" to Nancy Doe's class, distressing the child.

In January 2004 Doe met with Maull and Cunningham, and, the lawsuit says, "Cunningham stated that ... Nancy Doe should be removed from her classroom and stated that there was no reason why she should not have been reading reigious books during the Christmas holidays."

Maull agreed to "attempt to facilitate improved relations" between Cunningham and Nancy. But, the next day, Cunningham told Nancy in front of the class that she should transfer from the class. Nancy pleaded to stay with her friends, but Cunningham insisted that she go, according to the complaint.

Anti-Muslim taunts
At this point, the complaint says, "other children in the classroom taunted Nancy Doe with 'get lost' 'we don't want you here' 'no loser Muslims allowed.'"

Maull told Jane Doe that she would do nothing to help except to move Nancy to another class. On one of Doe's trips to the school to discuss her daughters' situation, the complaint says she was escorted from the school and told she was lucky the police hadn't been called.

Cunningham then "began a course of ostracism of Nancy Doe," the lawsuit says, and her classmates began "continually harassing" her, saying "Ms. Cunningham told you to leave-- no loser Muslims allowed."

Eventually, the district transferred Nancy Doe to another classroom; the children there taunted her too.

Meanwhile boys in Susan Doe's class pretended to urinate on her. One boy punched her in the face.

Superintendent insists that nothing is wrong
In February 2004, Jane Doe took Nancy and Susan to meet with Maull and Superintendent Brandenberger. According to the complaint, Brandenberger said that Cunningham's classroom materials were "appropriate," that she had not acted improperly -- and that Susan had not been hit in the face.

Nancy Doe became unable to go to school and began therapy for depression and anxiety.

Susan Doe's classmates continued harassing her, telling her "she was ugly, and was identified as a Muslim because she did not go to church and had an ugly name," according to the complaint, which adds that Susan Doe became too upset to continue going to school.

Over the summer Jane Doe tried to negotiate with the district so that Nancy and Susan could return to school without being harassed. The district provided no assurances, according to the complaint, so the family moved to a new school district.

The U.S. Justice Department began investigating the Cape Henlopen district's treatment of the Does and reached a settlement requiring some tolerance training. The Department's summary of the investigation leaves no doubt that the Does were victims of religious harassment.

Indeed, in a posting most recently updated in August, the US Department of Justice lists the Cape Henlopen case first among the discrimination cases arising in connection with 9/11 in which it intervened:

Cape Henlopen, Delaware: In March 2005, the Civil Rights Division reached a settlement with a school district regarding a complaint that a teacher repeatedly harassed a fourth-grade Muslim student. The teacher ridiculed the student in front of her classmates because of the student’s Muslim faith and the fact that student’s mother wore a headscarf. Consequently, the student was also harassed by her peers, and she missed several weeks of school as a result of emotional distress. The settlement with the school district required programs for religious tolerance for students and teachers as well as special training and monitoring for the teacher.

Following the Justice Department's settlement, the Doe family filed its lawsuit, asking the court to apply more rigorous correction to the school district. They seek injunctions against the discrimination, requiring the development of preventive policies and guidelines for handling complaints. Additionally, they are asking the court for mandatory training on issues of religious and cultural diversity for faculty and staff. And they are asking for damages for their suffering and financial losses.

Jane Doe, Nancy Doe, Mary Doe and Susan Doe v. Cape Henlopen School District, Dane Brandenberger, Janet Maull and Cindy Cunningham
Plaintiffs' Complaint, June 23, 2005

Please click here to read this PDF document.

Jane Doe, Nancy Doe, Mary Doe and Susan Doe v. Cape Henlopen School District, Dane Brandenberger, Janet Maull and Cindy Cunningham
Defendants' Answer to the Complaint, September 12, 2005

Please click here to read this PDF document.

Enforcement and Outreach Following the September 11 Terrorist Attacks

United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, last updated August 16, 2006

The Dept. lists the Cape Henlopen case first among the harassment cases. Click here.

Civil Rights Division Settles Muslim Student Harassment Case

United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Religious Freedom In Focus, March 2005

On March 1, the Civil Rights Division settled a case in which a Delaware student alleged she was harassed by a teacher because of her faith. In May 2004, the Department of Justice received a complaint that a teacher in the Cape Henlopen School District had harassed a fourth-grade Muslim girl, and that school officials had not taken adequate action in response. The Civil Rights Division opened an investigation, which was resolved by the March 1 settlement agreement. The girl and her parents alleged that her teacher told the class that the “Koran teaches war and hatred” and made similar statements. They also alleged that the teacher had directed comments at the girl, such as ridiculing her because her mother wore a headscarf. These incidents led to severe ridicule by other students. The complaint also alleged that the same teacher also proselytized her students. As a result of the teacher’s actions, the Muslim girl experienced great distress and missed many days of school. When her parents complained, the school assigned the girl to a new class, but took no significant other action.

In the settlement agreement reached between the school district and the Civil Rights Division, the school agreed to provide teacher training on diversity and the school’s policies regarding religious expression, to provide a tolerance education program for all K-5 students, and to create specific performance expectations for the teacher and ensure that she achieves them.

“We are pleased that this case has been resolved without recourse to a lawsuit,” said R. Alexander Acosta, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. “No student’s faith should be attacked by school employees, whose job it is to teach all children. Our country has long had a rich diversity of faith traditions, and the Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that people of all faiths are welcomed in our public institutions.” Click here for the Dept. of Justice page from which this was copied.


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