The teacher — Anthony Fonebi, who has been with the school system since 2003 — denied that he said anything derogatory, saying in an interview Friday that the situation was a misunderstanding and a classroom discussion was “blown out of proportion.”
The discussion came at the end of an 11th-grade class on Sept. 18, and students later reported it to school officials and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the country’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. CAIR on Friday asked the school system to take disciplinary action against the teacher, to protect the students who spoke up from retaliation and to provide sensitivity and diversity training to the school’s faculty and student body.
“Our focus is making sure it doesn’t occur again,” said Jenifer Wicks, an attorney at CAIR.
Max Pugh, a spokesman for the school system, said the school system became aware of the alleged incident Thursday and immediately began looking into it.
“Prince George’s County Public Schools has a large international student population, and we value and embrace cultural diversity,” Pugh said in a statement. “All accounts of what happened in the classroom at Parkdale High School are being examined as part of the investigation, which will be completed soon.”
Parkdale High School has a growing Muslim population, and it has recently changed its policies to be more accommodating to those students. Former principal Cheryl Logan recently changed school rules to allow Muslim students who have parental permission and high grades a pass out of class every day to pray.
A Parkdale student who was in Fonebi’s class and heard the comments about Muslims said the situation began when two students were talking to each other about a boy who liked a Muslim girl. The student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears of retaliation, said Fonebi interrupted the students. After a Muslim student told the boy jokingly that he could become a Muslim and marry the girl, Fonebi allegedly said the boy should never “be Muslim” and that “Muslims are dangerous. They are terrorists and they will kill you.”
Students who were in the class later told the principal and their counselors about the confrontation, the student said. They were allowed to transfer to another teacher’s class.
Fonebi said the Muslim girl told the student:“ ‘I am dangerous,’ that ‘Muslims are dangerous.’ ”
“I told the boy if she says she’s dangerous, you should take her seriously,” Fonebi said, adding that he then tried to use the conversation as a teachable moment. “I said we have to learn not to generalize. I said Muslims are portrayed as terrorists and I said that is not true.”
He said he explained the situation to the principal at the time and that he was surprised to learn the incident had resurfaced as a CAIR complaint.
CAIR sent a letter Thursday to Parkdale Principal Tanya Washington, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Lillian M. Lowery, Prince George’s County Schools Chief Executive Officer Kevin M. Maxwell and to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
The organization wrote that it believes the teacher’s “discriminatory statements were intended to provoke hatred and arouse suspicion and fear of Muslim students present in his class, as well as all Muslims in general, based on their Islamic faith. We are hopeful that you will agree that such invidious statements have no place in an academic environment.”
Earlier this year, an elementary school in Prince George’s County canceled a skit about immigration reform after a parent complained that the script, titled “The Uninvited Guest,” was offensive to immigrants.