tampabay.com

Justice department reviewing Muslim girl's school complaint

By THOMAS C. TOBIN & DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writers
Published December 8, 2007


The U.S. Justice Department is looking into last month's allegations by a St. Petersburg Muslim girl that she was threatened and harassed by a classmate at Azalea Middle School.

In a letter to Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox, a lawyer for the department's Civil Rights Division said the agency learned of the girl's allegations through media reports and asked the district to provide information on the case.

The lawyer, Kym Davis Rogers, said the inquiry was preliminary. She could not be reached Friday for comment.

Laurie Dart, an attorney for the school district, said she was compiling the information collected during Pinellas' investigation, which has ended. She said she planned to send it to the Justice Department soon. The district received the letter Monday.

The girl, 11-year-old Hannah Chehab, alleged at a Nov. 12 news conference that a boy at Azalea pulled off her headscarf, called a hijab, and later threatened to shoot and kill her after she complained to an assistant principal. She and her parents alleged that school officials were slow to respond to the incidents.

The sixth-grader also said the school year began with students asking her if she was a terrorist and if she was hiding a bomb.

The news conference was called by Ahmed Bedier, executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He said Friday that the girl's parents did not want to comment on the letter.

A school district investigation confirmed the details about the terrorist remarks but found no evidence of a threat by the boy. Azalea officials said they responded appropriately.

An assistant principal at the school reprimanded the boy for the hijab incident, isolated him from other students at lunch and gave him a work detail. But varying accounts raised doubts about the severity of the incident.

St. Petersburg police conducted a separate investigation and said they found no evidence to support Hannah's story. Among the findings: statements that the boy and girl often had been seen joking with each other.

Rogers, the justice department attorney, noted in the letter that the Civil Rights Division "is charged with enforcing laws that prohibit discrimination against public school students on the basis of race, color, national origin or religion."