A Cypress Bay High French teacher has been suspended for five days without pay, and will have to undergo a diversity training program, for calling a Muslim student a “raghead Taliban’’ when the 14-year-old walked into class wearing a hoodie last month.
The punishment didn’t please the student’s father. Youssef Wardani wanted the teacher, Maria Valdes, fired or suspended for a year without pay for what he calls racist comments.
On Tuesday, Wardani addressed the Broward School Board, who voted unanimously to discipline the teacher, who has been teaching in Broward Schools for 11 years.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“My son is Deyab-Houssein Wardani, [and] he’s not a raghead Taliban,” Wardani told the school board members.
Wardani said his son, who is of Lebanese and Moroccan descent, was bullied by his teacher, and accused the school board of not acting swiftly enough. He referred to Valdes’ suspension as a “five-day vacation.”
“I promise you for the rest of my life, until my dying breath, I’m going to make sure no child goes through what my Deyab-Houssein had to go through,” he said after the meeting.
Superintendent Robert W. Runcie, who filed an administrative complaint after he was informed about Valdes’ comments, said he responded as soon as he learned of the issue.
“I take a lot of exception to any statement, or suggestion that somehow this administration and school board did nothing or was ever lax in our response,” Runcie said. “To the contrary, this matter was taken very seriously and was addressed with an appropriate sense of urgency.”
According to the administrative complaint, Valdes stated, “Ah no! The Taliban is here,” when Deyab-Houssein would walk into the classroom at the Weston school, 18600 Vista Park Blvd. She’d also call on him by saying, “OK the Taliban, what is the answer?” and “Let’s ask the Taliban.”
The teacher continued to refer to Deyab-Houssein as “the Taliban,” and “terrorista,” which means terrorist in Spanish, until Wardani complained to the school administration.
Deyab-Houssein said other students laughed when she made her remark. He said he didn’t know the teacher was referring to him by the name of a terrorist organization until he asked his parents what the Taliban is, following the first incident.
After learning what the name meant, his response was: “This is definitely not funny.”
From the dais, Runcie shared his own experiences with racism — that his mother was shot by a man who said he didn’t like Jamaican immigrants, and how he took a Chicago taxi company to court for not giving him a ride because of his race.
Runcie, the son of a sugar cane farmer and a stay-at-home mom, emigrated with his family from Jamaica to the United States when he was 6. He graduated from Harvard, where he majored in economics.
“In my life experiences I’ve developed a conviction that there is no room whatsoever, none, for racism, hatred, bullying and intolerance,” said Runcie, who was named Broward superintendent in 2011. In 2013, the school board extended his contract for an additional five years.
He also talked about the district’s anti-bullying policy and the reduction in bullying in schools over the past few years.
After the meeting, Wardani said the school board didn’t do enough and that he planned to focus on the issue. He said he has reached out to the FBI.
“We never asked for money, the only thing we asked for is a proper decision,” said Wardani, when he spoke during the meeting.
Deyab-Houssein echoed his father’s disappointment with the school board's course of action, and said he’s “very proud” of how his dad stood up for him.
In school, Deyab-Houssein says he is getting support from his peers, but describes being in the French class as “awkward.”
“I’m getting a strange vibe from [Valdes], like she doesn’t want me to be there,” said Deyab-Houssein, who says he is staying focused on his studies. “This is motivating me to work harder to prove that I am not a random guy who you can call a Taliban.”
At first, Wardani just wanted an apology from the teacher. When he wasn't satisfied with the outcome of a meeting with Valdes, he contacted the school board.
Valdes hasn't had prior disciplinary action taken against her.
The Miami Herald made several attempts to talk to Valdes and Cypress Bay Principal Charles Scott Neely for comment. Neither party responded.
This isn't the first time a Broward teacher has been reprimanded for saying inappropriate comments to a student.
In 2013, the school board unanimously suspended Blanche Ely High School teacher Leslie Rainer for a week without pay and had her attend diversity sensitivity training after calling a Haitian-American student a “little chocolate boy” during class.