A Muslim Arab American high school student was left “in shock” after a teacher responded to his question about math homework using the term “terrorists.” According to WABC, the teacher from Ridgefield Memorial High School in Bergen County, New Jersey, made the insensitive comment following a question from Mohammed Zubi, a senior student, regarding his math work. Zubi had asked his teacher if he could finish an assignment at home on Tuesday.
“He responded saying, ‘We don’t negotiate with terrorists,'” Zubi told WABC. “So I look around in shock, there’s people laughing, and there’s other people in shock, and I turn around and ask my friend, ‘Did he really just say that?’ and she said yes.”
The teacher’s name has not been released, but the comment has made its way all over social media, with individuals of all races demanding justice for the 17-year-old student, who now feels uncomfortable returning to class.
According to WABC, Zubi—who is the captain of the school’s soccer team—has not returned to school since the incident last week.
“I don’t feel like going back, I’m really uncomfortable,” Zubi said, “I don’t want to see anyone, and I’ve been in my room all day—don’t want to see my friends, especially after what that teacher said to me.”
Shortly after making the comment and noting the shock on students’ faces, the teacher allegedly told Zubi he did not “mean it like that.” However, other students, including one named Vuk Tomasese, noted that they not only heard the comment but that the teacher knew Zubi was both Muslim and of Arab descent. “The teacher got close to him and said, ‘We don’t negotiate with terrorists,’ knowing that Mohammed is Arabic and Muslim,” Tomasese told WABC.
Additionally, Zubi’s family is well known in the community and high school as his mother previously worked there and his elder siblings graduated from the school as well.
“It hurt my heart to hear such a comment from my younger brother, a 17-year-old minority,” Anas Zubi, the student’s elder brother, said upon hearing the statement.
When the district was initially asked about the situation, a spokesperson called it a “personal matter” and said there was nothing more to say. It wasn’t until the situation became well known on social media that school board members took it more seriously. In a statement Friday, the district shared it is conducting a full investigation and that the teacher in question has been suspended until further notice.
“The Ridgefield School District has absolutely no tolerance for any sort of discrimination against any student or staff member,” Letizia Pantoliano, interim superintendent of Ridgefield Public Schools, said in a statement. “The District strives to create an inclusive environment where students’ and staff members’ race, religion, national origin, and sexual orientation are embraced. While the District cannot legally comment on personnel or student matters, the public should be aware that the District immediately suspended the staff member while it is conducting a full investigation. Additionally, the District has notified law enforcement for its assistance. The District fully intends to pursue any and all legal remedies against the staff member as any discriminatory conduct has absolutely no place in our District.”
The story went viral on Twitter Friday after Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) New Jersey Director Selaedin Maksut shared the incident.
“A New Jersey teacher allegedly told a Muslim student ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists’ after he asked for an extension. This type of language is unacceptable from an educator. The school must investigate and take appropriate action.”
In a statement, he added: “It’s almost unbelievable. We’re left speechless. Why would a teacher say this to a student?”
But unfortunately, such incidents of allegedly Islamophobia are not new to either New Jersey or the U.S. Earlier this month, another incident from a New Jersey school went viral on social media in which an elementary school teacher “forcibly” removed a second-grade student’s hijab. While the teacher later denied removing the hijab, claiming she thought it was a hoodie, reports indicate she told the student, “Your hair is beautiful,” prior to doing so. According to WABC, the student even protested the removal of the hijab multiple times before the teacher violently ripped it off.
After 9/11, Muslim Americans and people of color have reported a surge in hate incidents. Multiple reports have found that Muslim Americans have experienced alarming rates of Islamophobia, with a string of hate crimes against them surging in the months of September and October.
According to the latest research exploring the lives of Muslim Americans, more than two-thirds of U.S. Muslims have personally experienced Islamophobia, Daily Kos reported. Additionally, the survey found that this rate was higher in Muslim women, with nearly 75% of participants believing women are more at risk of experiencing Islamophobia. It follows similar research in which data found Muslim children are more likely to be bullied in school than children of other faiths.
The disparities are so high that in Massachusetts alone, 60% of Muslim youth surveyed reported being mocked, verbally harassed, or physically abused because of their Islamic faith. About 17% reported other forms of physical harassment, including having their hijab pulled on. As a result, many students stated they have altered their appearance or hidden their name.