A teacher at Lake Braddock Secondary School was put on leave on Nov. 16 after a female student said that he had pulled off her hijab, an act that has been characterized as harassment by those supporting the student and characterized as a mistake blown out of proportion by those who have rallied behind the teacher.
The student alleges the teacher, who has since been identified as technology education teacher Lesmond Saunders, “ripped off” her hijab while she was talking to a friend and commented that her hair was “so pretty.”
“I felt so infuriated, upset, and mostly shocked because he did this to me,” the student said when detailing the Nov. 15 incident on Twitter under the handle @yasmemee.
Neither the student nor Saunders responded to the Fairfax County Times’ requests for comment.
Saunders remained on leave as of Nov. 20 as an investigation into the incident by Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) was ongoing.
“The teacher’s action was inappropriate and unacceptable,” FCPS spokesman John Torre said in a statement. “The school administration has apologized to the student and her family. FCPS takes this incident seriously and, while a thorough investigation of the incident is conducted, the teacher has been placed on leave.”
However, the student’s account of the incident has been disputed by some witnesses who say that she was wearing a sweatshirt hood over her hijab and that the hijab came off when Saunders “jokingly” meant to remove her hood.
A student named Manaal Baig who claimed to see the incident denied on Twitter that Saunders had made a comment about the student’s hair, saying that he wanted to apologize afterwards.
“He really didn’t mean to take your hijab off,” Baig said in a message directed to the student. “I’m Muslim too and I know how important a hijab is, but he didn’t intend on ripping it off your head. Please don’t make it something it’s not because this teacher is really one of, if not, the best teachers at our school.”
Saunders also received a show of support from dozens of students who walked out of class on Nov. 17 to protest his suspension, according to WUSA9.
The student responded to Baig arguing that Saunders should not have touched her in the first place, regardless of intent, and that she was not aware of any apology from him.
“I want justice and I’m going to [do] what’s necessary to receive that,” the student said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s one of the best teachers at LB he still chose to touch me, and there are consequences for his actions.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a national Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, is providing legal representation for the student and her family.
While the organization issued a statement on Nov. 16 welcoming FCPS’s decision to put the teacher on leave and apologize to the student, CAIR also suggested that further disciplinary action should be taken.
“There is no justification for a male teacher to forcibly remove a female student’s article of clothing,” CAIR national litigation director Lena Masri said. “And there is absolutely no justification for the bullying of a student who reports the removal of that clothing by a teacher.”
Masri expressed skepticism in the Lake Braddock’s administration’s ability to investigate Saunders.
“We have no confidence that the school’s administrative leaders…will conduct the thorough investigation that this situation requires,” Masri said. “We call on the central office of Fairfax County Public Schools to take over this investigation and to immediately take all appropriate actions.”
Torre says that FCPS, not Lake Braddock personnel, is in charge of the investigation.
The FCPS student rights and responsibilities handbook dictates that students with a complaint about the actions of school officials may first request a meeting with their principal, who must then notify the director of the FCPS Office of Equity and Employee Relations.
The principal’s decision on a complaint can then be submitted for review by the student or parent to the regional assistant superintendent within two school days following their receipt of the decision.
Any decision made by the regional assistant superintendent after reviewing the complaint will be final.
A similar incident occurred earlier this month at a charter school in Nashville, Tenn., when a Snapchat video showed a student at New Vision Academy hiding her face after someone removed her hijab.
The school subsequently launched an investigation that culminated with the teacher who had been in the classroom at the time of the incident being put on an indefinite suspension without pay, The Tennessean reported on Nov. 13.
According to CAIR, the wearing of a hijab reflects Islam’s emphasis on modest clothing for both men and women so that they are valued for their knowledge, skills, and contributions to the community, rather than based on physical appearances.
The organization notes in its educator’s guide to Islamic religious practices that students who wear head coverings sometimes get teased by their peers, and teachers should prevent classmates from pulling on or removing a Muslim student’s scarf.
“No student should be bullied or attacked because of his or her faith,” CAIR national executive director Nihad Awad said. “Teachers must protect students, not subject them to harassment or intimidation.”