Broward County

Weston teacher faces discipline over alleged slur of Muslim student

A Cypress Bay High School French teacher could lose her job after allegedly calling student a Muslim slur.
A Cypress Bay High School French teacher could lose her job after allegedly calling student a Muslim slur. Miami Herald File, 2010

A Cypress Bay High School French teacher could lose her job after allegedly calling a Muslim student a “rag-head Taliban.”

The Broward School Board will hear from the student’s father on Tuesday. The board is expected to take disciplinary action during its March 17 meeting.

Youssef Wardani, father of 14-year-old Deyab-Houssein Wardani, is pressing for the firing or suspension of Cypress Bay High School teacher Maria Valdes for her remark.

Wardani, a software engineer, said his son came to him in early February to ask about the word Taliban, saying Valdes called him that when he entered the classroom.

“He said he knew we are Muslim, but asked what is Taliban?” said Wardani, who added that his son had worn a hooded sweatshirt to school that day with the hood pulled up around his head.

“I shield my son from every hate I can. I am very careful and pay attention to that sort of thing, so I sat him down and explained” about the ultraconservative political and religious faction that emerged in Afghanistan in the mid 1990s.

Wardani’s son told him Valdes frequently used nicknames for students and had called him the name at least twice in front of the entire class.

Wardani, an immigrant from Lebanon whose wife is from Morocco, said he went to the school the following day and explained the situation to Assistant Principal Marianela Estripeaut, who told him she would discuss the matter with principal Scott Neely.

Neely and Valdes did not respond to interview requests. Valdes, 64, has been a Broward teacher for 11 years and has no prior disciplinary record, according to a school district spokeswoman.

Later that day, Wardani said Neely called and expressed concern about the comments and said he would take action. A meeting was set for 8 a.m. Feb. 10, with teacher Valdes.

Wardani said the meeting was less than productive.

“Her apology was robotic and empty and rehearsed,” he said. “She said it was an innocent joke and then started rolling her eyes and was huffing and puffing when I asked her questions.

“She, as a teacher, has a responsibility. Look, as a Middle-Eastern man, I have treaded lightly ever since 9/11.”

Following the meeting Wardani was asked what outcome he wanted. He told school administrators he wanted the teacher fired or suspended for a year without pay. And, he wanted a public apology.

“They told me that the best I could hope for was a letter in her personnel file” due to teacher’s union rules, he said.

Wardani said he is not a man to give up, especially when an issue affects his family. He is worried because school administrators seemed more concerned about the teacher and the union than any damage done to his son.

“If my son was to make a derogatory remark against the teacher, would he have been punished?” he asked. “Of course he would. So, why is the teacher not? Why is she allowed to stay in class?”

Wardani said Assistant Principal Estripeaut gave him three choices — pull his son out of the class and put him in another French class, learn outside of class or remain in the same class. So far, the ninth grader remains in Valdes’ class.

Wardani said his son, an honor roll student and Boy Scout, now hates going to school.

“My son was not the one who needed to change,” he said. “The teacher is the one who needs to be let go.”

Feeling like he was getting nowhere with the school, Wardani on Feb. 12 started making calls. He phoned Broward Superintendent of Schools Robert Runcie and school board member Laurie Rich-Levinson. He also filed complaints with the FBI and at the Broward Sheriff’s Office in Weston, where the high school is located.

Wardani said BSO reluctantly opened a case file, but told him no hate crime occurred because his son wasn’t hurt. He said he hasn’t heard back yet from the FBI.

According to the FBI, a hate crime involves threats, harassment or physical harm and is motivated by prejudice against someone’s race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical or mental disability.

Wardani said Runcie called him back and told him the matter would come before the school board on March 17. The agenda for that meeting has not been published, but school board staff said they are looking into the matter.

“The issue was brought to the attention of the superintendent who ordered staff to investigate what happened,” said Tracy Clark, chief public information officer for the Broward school district.

An investigation has been completed and “disciplinary action will be brought forth in March,” she said, adding that action can vary, with termination as the ultimate sanction. Any action must be approved by the School Board and within the guidelines of the bargaining agreement between the unions and the school board.

While Valdes could be terminated, School Board staff is recommending a five-day suspension without pay as well as successful completion of diversity training.

Clark added that the normal route for parental concerns begins at the school level. If the issue cannot be resolved there, parents are referred to the district’s Office of Parent Engagement or the Office of Service Quality.

Wardani said he wants justice.

“I am looking to be treated as fairly as any human being would.”

This is not Wardani’s first go round with Broward schools.

The family moved to Weston in July, 2013. When Wardani registered his son for school, he discovered his son’s first name was too long to fit into the school system’s computer system, which limits first names to 12 characters. His son’s name was two characters too long. The system shortened it to Deyab-Housse.

“Deyab, which is my grandfather’s first name and is Lebanese, means wolf. Houssein is my wife’s grandfather’s name, which is Moroccan and means good. My son loves his name,” Wardani said. “For cultural and ethnicity reasons, and many family reasons, it is a very important name.”

Wardani said he suggested that the school use DH, which is what his family and friends called him. However, the school said that wasn’t possible because it wasn’t his son’s legal name. He also was told it would cost too much change the software program to include the entire name.

As a result, his records and yearbook continued to use the truncated name.

“That chopping off his name is legal, that is disgusting,” he said, adding that other students had the same problem.

After going back and forth for nearly 18 months, school Principal Neely told Wardani on Feb.10 that the school could use DH as the teen’s first name.

Florida Bulldog is a not-for-profit news organization created to provide investigative reporting in the public interest.

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