Muslim girl's tale in doubt
Police close the case, finding no evidence she was harassed.
By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 21, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - Hannah Chehab's tale of harassment drew widespread attention last week.
She said a fellow Azalea Middle School student choked her, pulled off her Muslim head scarf and threatened to shoot her. School officials were slow to respond, Hannah and her parents said. A local Islamic group called a press conference to draw attention to the allegations.
But a police report released Tuesday says investigators found little evidence to support Hannah's story.
Several classmates told police that Hannah, 11, routinely talked and played around with the boy she accused of threatening her. The school resource officer who investigated the complaint found several witnesses who contradict Hannah's account. School videocamera footage doesn't support her tale either, the police report says.
Police said it's unclear if Hannah's hijab was ever removed.
"Our investigation did not reveal any information or evidence to support the girl's allegations," said police spokesman Bill Proffitt. He said the investigation has been closed and no charges will be filed.
The school district has said an assistant principal reprimanded the boy, isolated him from other students during lunch that day and assigned him to a work detail.
Ahmed Bedier, executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, brought the girl to a press conference last week to draw attention to the incident and criticize the district's response.
On Tuesday, Bedier said the school district failed to notify police until after the press conference. Bedier said Hannah's parents still haven't decided whether they're going to send her back to Azalea.
Pinellas County school officials have maintained that Azalea Middle School acted appropriately.
Hannah's complaint centered around an 11-year-old boy who, she said, choked her and threatened to shoot her with a BB gun. She also said the boy tugged at her head scarf and tipped it off, "exposing her hair and neck," according to a police report.
Hannah and her parents complained that school officials, including an assistant principal at Azalea, offered a misleading account of events.
But when the school resource officer interviewed students in the class where Hannah said her head scarf was taken off, several said that Hannah and the boy had been joking around and talking, as they often did.
Several students said the boy tugged at Hannah's head scarf. Some students said the hijab came off, but others said it came down partway.
The teacher in the classroom told the officer that just one curl of Hannah's hair was exposed as she walked to the bathroom to fix her hijab.
According to the report, Hannah didn't report any threats while talking to an assistant principal, though she and her parents now dispute that account.
Several students did say they heard someone threaten to shoot Hannah. But the accounts of the threat vary.
Bedier said Hannah was a good student who doesn't get into trouble. He said the report doesn't negate her claims.
"Hannah is very troubled and she's basically in disbelief," Bedier said. "She was a victim in this situation.
"There's no evidence so far to show that she's lying."
Several School Board members praised Hannah last week when, flanked by her mother and Bedier, she appeared at a board meeting and read a statement. But on Tuesday, board member Jane Gallucci said she had concerns about the lack of emotion in the 11-year-old's presentation.
"It was as if she was reading a book," said Gallucci, who for many years worked as a middle school guidance counselor for the district. "If this was as traumatic as she said it was, there would have been more emotion in the retelling."
Times staff writer Donna Winchester contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727 893-8472.