SOMSD under fire regarding allegations that teacher forcibly removed hijab from second-grader

Seth Boyden Elementary School

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange–Maplewood School District is investigating a discrimination allegation at Seth Boyden Elementary School, in which a second-grade teacher allegedly forcibly removed a hijab from a student’s head. The incident first gained publicity in a Facebook post written by Ibtihaj Muhammad, a former Olympic fencer and SOMSD graduate. In a statement from the district on Oct. 7, the district said it is investigating the incident.

“The district takes matters of discrimination extremely seriously. This evening, we were alerted to social media posts related to the allegations. Social media is not a reliable forum for due process, and the staff member(s) involved are entitled to due process before any action is taken,” the Oct. 7 statement read. “We must abide by our legal obligations to keep personnel and student matters confidential. We will utilize the existing district due process mechanisms to ensure fair and just outcomes based upon the results of our investigation. Any decision or outcome related to this will be reserved for after the completion of the investigation.”

However, in an update sent by Superintendent of Schools Ronald Taylor on Oct. 12, the district said that it was no longer investigating the incident, instead deferring to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office and Maplewood Police Department.

“Pursuant to our memorandum of understanding with the Maplewood Police Department, we have been directed to pause our internal investigation into the alleged actions as the prosecutor’s office and MPD lead their own inquiry,” Taylor wrote Oct. 12. “As a reminder, while the district cannot comment on matters involving personnel or staff, the community can be assured that all necessary measures have been taken to remedy the immediate situation within the purview of the district’s power, while this matter is being investigated. Our ultimate hope is that a fair and just outcome would arise from this formal review for all parties involved.”

Neither of the district’s statements named the teacher, but Muhammad’s post named Tamar Herman.

“Yesterday, Tamar Herman, a teacher at Seth Boyden Elementary in Maplewood, N.J., forcibly removed the hijab of a second-grade student. The young student resisted, by trying to hold onto her hijab, but the teacher pulled the hijab off, exposing her hair to the class,” Muhammad wrote in the Oct. 7 Facebook post. “Herman told the student that her hair was beautiful and she did not have to wear hijab to school anymore.”

In a statement to WABC-TV, an ABC affiliate in New York, a lawyer who represents Herman said the teacher did not remove the hijab from the student’s head.

“This is not a story about a teacher who forcibly removed a student’s hijab. This is a story about social media, misinformation and what happens when people publicize rumors without any knowledge of or regard for the truth. (The teacher) did not, as has been alleged, forcibly remove a student’s hijab or tell a student that she should not have to wear a hijab. In accordance with school policy, (the teacher) directed a student in her class to pull down the hood on what appeared to be a hooded sweatshirt because it was blocking her eyes — and immediately rescinded that request when she realized that the student was wearing the hood in place of, rather than on top of, her usual hijab,” attorney Samantha Harris told ABC. “The misinformation shared on social media has caused tremendous harm to (the teacher) — a teacher who, after more than 30 years of devoting her heart and soul to children of all backgrounds, has now had to ask for police protection due to the threats she is receiving following the dissemination of false information on social media.”

According to the district, it too has received harassing messages and urges everyone to keep a cool head while the investigation continues.

“Our district has been the focus of heavy media scrutiny on both the local and national levels, due to the alleged actions of a staff member,” Taylor said Oct. 12. “Our central office, as well as Seth Boyden’s main office, have been flooded with hundreds of calls, and we have received over 2,000 emails, a majority of which have been from parties outside of our community and New Jersey. The overarching tone of these correspondences condemn the alleged actions of the staff member and strongly advocate for adverse personnel action. However, some of the correspondences have been threatening, disrespectful and vulgar in nature. 

“The values of our district and community have always centered around diversity, equity and respect regarding our differences. Our goal is to be inclusive and to provide an environment of safety where both our students and staff can thrive irrespective of their race, gender, religious affiliation, sexual identity or socioeconomic status,” Taylor continued. “Although the nature of the allegations can cause an emotional response, we want to request patience and civility during this time. The harsh and threatening comments received towards the Seth Boyden school, staff and district as a whole is concerning. Our staff should not be afraid to come to school or feel a heightened sense of concern for their personal safety due to threats from others. We are hopeful and all agree that the alleged actions of one employee should not condemn an entire community.”

A request to the district for more information was not returned by press time on Oct. 12. Seth Boyden Principal Shannon Glander also did not return a request for comment.

“We remain committed to diversity, equity and inclusion throughout our schools, including providing antibias and anti-racism training for all educators in the district on a regular basis,” the district’s Oct. 7 statement said. “We put the words into action as exemplified by our adoption of an intentional integration plan, creation of an assistant superintendent position focused on access and equity, and engagement with outside equity experts.”

Other organizations released statements in support of the student and her family, including the SOMA-based Black Parents Workshop.

“The state of New Jersey has one of the strongest antidiscrimination laws in the nation, and this incident underscores why the impact on children by discriminatory behavior must be our foremost concern. When a child walks into a classroom, they deserve to feel safe and not burdened by the necessity to validate their race, ethnicity or religious beliefs,” the BPW stated on Oct. 11. “We believe if the South Orange–Maplewood School District would implement the anti-racist and cultural competency training for teachers that the Black Parents Workshop and others have advocated, incidents such as this would not occur. It is long past time for this district’s practices to match its rhetoric.”

The president of the New Jersey chapter of the Islamic Center of North America, Tariq Zamir, said the ICNA-NJ is supporting the family.

“Students in this state have a right to safety, security and freedom from humiliation while on school premises, which includes respect for their religion. It is the duty of faculty and administrators to ensure those rights,” Zamir said. “The level of cultural insensitivity allegedly exhibited by the faculty member in this incident cannot be tolerated and should be grounds for dismissal.”