CAIR-WA hosts forum in Concrete

By Jason Miller
posted 3.24.13

About 60 people attended a March 24 meeting at Concrete Center in the ongoing discussion surrounding Concrete K-8 School teacher Mary Janda and the student who claims Janda made anti-Muslim comments during a class discussion last October.

Billed as a “community forum,” the meeting was hosted by the Seattle office of the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-WA), the self-described Muslim civil rights organization from whom the student’s father asked for assistance after the alleged incident.

Attendees were generally pro-CAIR, anti-CAIR, or neutral, wanting to hear what the organization’s representatives had to say. Before the meeting, a group of protestors gathered outside the building, passing out leaflets and holding signs with messages such as “CAIR has proven ties to Hamas,” “CAIR: Take your drama someplace else,” and “CAIR named co-conspirators in Holy Land Foundation terror trial.”

One attendee, Bud Carr of Van Horn, held a sign that said, “What about Mrs. Janda’s First Amendment right?” He said he planned to attend because for him, “security is the biggest issue. If it was a group without terrorist ties, I wouldn’t be standing here. But the friend of my enemy is my enemy.”

Kathy Reim of Sedro-Woolley said before the meeting that she was there because “I care deeply about respect for diversity, and safety for our kids and workplaces. I want to be as well informed about all issues as I can be, including religion.”

Bill Sullivan from Concrete stood with John Boggs, who lives near Concrete and, with Sullivan, has been instrumental in many volunteer initiatives in town, most recently last summer’s “Paint the Town” project. Both men characterized themselves as “neutral” in the discussion. “We’re here for the broad, overall story—the facts and the facts alone—not the rhetoric,” said Sullivan. “How can you form an opinion if you don’t have all the facts?”

Representing CAIR-WA during the forum were Executive Director Arsalan Bukhari and Civil Rights Coordinator Jennifer Gist, who fielded attendees’ questions. Also attending was Emily Marriott, the organization’s event-planning intern.

The forum was designed to be a “heart to heart conversation with community members,” according to a press release from CAIR-WA. It began with Bukhari and Gist giving their personal backgrounds and providing an overview of CAIR, whose mission is to defend civil liberties, empower the Muslim community, and provide public education, according to Bukhari. The organization performs interfaith work among churches and mosques, as well as works with state and federal law enforcement on hate crimes. (According to FBI 2011 statistics, hate crimes against followers of Islam accounted for 13.3 percent of 1,318 offenses reported by law enforcement. Anti-Jewish hate crimes comprised 62.2 percent.) Bukhari said that CAIR’s national presence was founded in 1994, with the Washington state chapter formed in 2004.

Gist explained CAIR’s involvement with the case, stating that according to the student, Janda compared Muslims to Nazis. The student told her parents and her father performed an Internet search and found CAIR. He spoke with Gist that same day.

“I asked the father what he wanted to see come of this case. We talked about setting up a meeting with the school, among other options. He decided he wanted to document the complaint in writing and ask the school to do an investigation,” said Gist.

CAIR-WA sent its first letter to the Concrete School District in November and received a six-line response just before Christmas, said Gist. “The father was dissatisfied” with the district’s response, said Gist. “He felt he’d been brushed off.”

CAIR-WA responded by filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice in February. The DOJ has not yet informed CAIR-WA whether it will investigate, but if it does, Gist said it will look for “a pattern of bias.”

Bukhari and Gist fielded a slew of questions during the two-hour meeting, with topics ranging from its decision-making process during the Janda case to its funding and affiliations with other organizations.

Asked why the family didn’t take its complaint to the school district first, Gist said that it was an option for them, “but they asked us. They didn’t explain to CAIR why they didn’t go to the district.”

More than one attendee voiced concern over CAIR’s funding sources, saying the organization has ties to Hamas and is funded by the Muslim Brotherhood. Bukhari said that CAIR-WA’s operating funds come from an annual banquet, appeals at mosques, and smaller events, as well as some Web donations and speaking fees. Regarding affiliations, Bukhari said, “We associate with any Muslim group in the U.S., work with any major Muslim organization in the area—in Washington. The Muslim Brotherhood is an Egyptian organization; we don’t get funds from them. Hamas? No.”

Bukhari pointed attendees to the organization’s information table, where IRS tax returns for CAIR-WA could be found, he said.

Reim encouraged the CAIR-WA representatives to consider recommending local mediation services to the student and her family. Gist said that mediation services “would be a good option, but I’d leave that decision with the family.”

Several attendees wondered why CAIR-WA didn’t contact Janda directly when the complaint was made. Gist said it wasn’t CAIR-WA’s practice to go directly to the person about whom a complaint is filed. She said they attempted to speak with one other student who was in the class, but the student’s parents declined.

The most-repeated audience complaints focused on the student’s father choosing not to contact Janda or the district first, and CAIR-WA’s handling of the case after the complaint; specifically, naming Janda on its Web site and in news releases and stating that she had compared Muslims to Nazis without using qualifiers in their statements or saying Janda “allegedly” made the comparison.

“Throwing the person’s name out there and slandering someone before the proper steps are taken is not the right way to do it,” said one attendee.

“I feel it was very backwards, the way you went,” said attendee Amanda Martin. “Nobody knew what was going on until all of a sudden, a wonderful woman was smeared across the Internet. One little girl said it. You’re going to tell me you never lied once? Or didn’t listen? You need to get more than one opinion about the same thing. You need to make sure there’s an actual backstance on what’s going on before you riproar into a place like this. There is a strong sense of community, of family here. We look out for our people here. This woman didn’t do anything like that.”

Gist replied, “I wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened. It may be the student’s statements aren’t true; it may be that they are. Our request is for an investigation. I want to know what the truth is. Because we didn’t get that from the school, we asked the DOJ.”

Emotions ran high at several points during the forum. Early in the meeting, Concrete business owner John Tygret shouted, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” and left the building. He returned later and asked two questions of the attendees: “Does everybody agree that Concrete was doing fine before [CAIR] came?” and “Does everybody agree that Concrete will be fine after [CAIR] leaves?” With most attendees answering “yes” to both questions, Tygret again said, “Get behind me” and left the meeting.

Boggs pointed out that much of the community’s irritation with CAIR-WA was the language it used in its early press releases. “Instead of just appreciating our comments, I’d like to hear an apology from CAIR,” he said, saying that the original press release stated the situation as a fact, not an allegation, and released the teacher’s name, but not the student’s name.

Bukhari agreed that the original press release didn’t use the word “allegedly.” “That was not our intent. I regret that,” he said.

Another attendee asked why the Washington Education Association—the teachers union—has apparently been silent on the subject to date. “This is an incredibly powerful union that can pick and choose what fight they want to fight,” he said. “They should be behind her in droves—buses full of them to support her.”

Bukhari and Gist said repeatedly that they didn’t “choose” Concrete for any reason other than the family’s request to intervene. “Whenever we get reports, we go,” said Bukhari. “Our goal is to make this town better than ever. Our goal is to make sure that our school system here in Concrete is better than it was before October 2012. We’re here for the long run, to respond to the complaint, make sure everyone is happy in the end. Resolve the issue and leave things better than they were.

“We’re seeing the system didn’t work—the system to resolve complaints effectively.”

Many comments and questions focused on CAIR’s alleged ties to terrorist groups and community members’ perceptions of CAIR’s agenda. At one point, Linda Jordan, a teacher at Skagit Valley College, grew frustrated with the discussion and said, “Is this really what we want to be talking about? Conspiracies? Hamas? Taliban? We’re in danger of a teacher who is ending her career with this on her record. We have a student whose father is a Muslim and doesn’t feel safe in his community. Is there a way to dial this back?

“If we were able to have someone go to the family and say, ‘Can we please try and solve this in a way that is not litigation-based?’ We need to solve this problem; we don’t need to keep pointing fingers. A plan is what we should come out of this meeting with. That is how we solve problems; we don’t get on teams.”

Two former Janda students attended, with Concrete senior Jessica Filtz asking about CAIR’s intentions with regard to the school district’s textbooks. “After all of this is over, is there something that’s going to be done to our textbooks?” she asked.

“Our intention is not to stay involved in this community beyond the resolution of this case,” said Gist.

The other student, a Concrete sophomore who gave his name as James Mohawk, shared his experience with conflict resolution. “A while ago, I had a problem with a teacher. I went and talked to the teacher, solved it in a day,” he said.

The conversation strayed to Islam and its sometimes tense relationship with Christianity worldwide. Dave Nichols, who pastors North Cascade Community Church in Marblemount, quoted CAIR’s founder, Omar Ahmad, as having said, “Islam isn’t in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Koran should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on the Earth.”

“I don’t know about that comment,” said Bukhari. “That sounds really concerning. We don’t believe in the supremacy of one religion over another. I agree with you. … I don’t believe that Shari’ah law should be the law that America follows.”

Concrete-area blogger Grace Popoff, who is a retired school teacher, brought the discussion back to the central topic by telling a personal story about a student who had told her mother that Popoff had slapped her. Popoff didn’t recall slapping any student, but “such an accusation strikes terror in you; that’s a career-ending accusation.”

When she eventually found herself in the same room with the student, a parent, and other adults, she told the student she didn’t remember slapping her and asked the student to show her what she’d done. The student tapped Popoff on the shoulder from behind. “I said, ‘I actually remember tapping you on the shoulder.’ I saw her slumped in her chair and I tapped her and said, ‘sit up, get to work.’

“She told her mom that I had slapped her. She was right, in a sense. But that was not what her mother envisioned when she heard this from her daughter.

“There’s some truth here that eludes us and will probably elude us forever. The fact is that something happened that upset the student. I’m sure her intent wasn’t what we’ve had happen here. I suspect what she wants is an examination of how Islam is handled in schools. Given what has been said here tonight, it seems there is some basis for that concern. I’m hoping we can honor this student and Mary. I don’t know that [Mary] is permanently damaged. But we stand the risk of damaging this student and her family by not honoring her concern.”

Popoff got a round of applause for her comments.

Attendee Luther Galbreath explained his perspective: “Most of us here don’t have a problem or animosity toward the family. We love Mary Janda. We’re suspect of CAIR. We’re suspect of your motives. We don’t want your involvement in our school system. We don’t want you making our teachers fearful. Fear makes people avoid issues. We have lots of problems in our world; the students should be informed. But this muzzles our teachers out of fear of people like you.”

“If the student’s allegation had been the teacher compared one extremist group to another, we wouldn’t have been here,” said Gist.

“You’re lying to us and we know it,” said one man. “We’re not mad at the little girl and her father, but we don’t care much for you.”

Gist said the student is considering moving out of the district. “Her grades have started to suffer. Some students have made comments about her father and terrorists. We want to make sure she’s safe.”

Attendee Denny Hoyt responded, “I think the school resolved the problem in six lines. You people just didn’t understand it.”

Attendees often voiced frustration with how the case has ballooned into something larger than a complaint. Jim Hillman, who lives near Concrete, told Gist that CAIR-WA “should sit down with the family and tell them they need to sit down and settle this. This is ridiculous.”

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