Debbie Almontaser

Debbie Almontaser

Debbie Almontaser (also Dhaba Almontaser or Dhabah Almontaser) is a Muslim teacher[1] of Yemeni descent who was the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a New York Arab-themed public school, named after the Christian Arab poet, Khalil Gibran.



Debbie Almontaser is the founding and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy. As a 20-year veteran of the NYC public school system, she has taught special education, inclusion, trained teachers in literacy, and served as a multicultural specialist and diversity advisor. Almontaser frequently lectures and serves on panels as well as facilitates teacher and public workshops on conflict resolution, Agusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, Arab culture, and Islam, at universities, libraries, museums, churches, and synagogues across the city and at local, national and international conferences.

Almontaser co-designed a curriculum for the Muslim Communities Project at Columbia University and for Educators for Social Responsibility/Metro. In addition, she has contributed a chapter in The Day Our World Changed: Children's Art of 9/11 for New York University's Child Study Center and the Museum of the City of New York and in Forever After: New York City Teachers on 9/11 for Teachers College Press as well as articles and essays in several magazines. Almontaser also serves as a consultant to Nickelodeon's Nick Jr. Muslim American Series Project, Independent Production Fund on the Islam Project (producers of Muslims and Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet PBS Productions), Islam Access Project (Channel 13 WNET), the Muslim Communities Project, Columbia University, Educators for Social Responsibility, the Interfaith Center of NYC, and the Church Avenue Merchants Block Association's (CAMBA, Inc.) Diversity Project. Almontaser was a member of the steering committee for A Community of Many Worlds: Arab-Americans at the Museum of the City of New York. In 2005, Almontaser spearheaded the inauguration of Arab Heritage Week in New York City. She is also the go to person on cultural and religious diversity issues for Borough President Marty Markowitz, the Mayor’s office of Immigrant Affairs, New York Police Department and City Council Members David Yassky, Bill DeBlasio and John Liu among others.

Almontaser is a founding board member of The Dialogue Project, Brooklyn Borough President's New Diversity Task Force, board advisor for the Same Difference Interfaith Alliance, Youth Bridge NY, and a member of the board of directors of Women in Islam, Muslim Consultative Network and Saba: The Association of Yemeni Americans. She is also a cofounder of Brooklyn Bridges, the September 11th Curriculum Project, and We Are All Brooklyn.

Criticism of Almontaser

Almontaser was forced by the Department of Education and the Mayor of the City of New York to resign after a controversy arose over a T-shirt created by a group called "Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media", an organization that used office space to run its youth program at Saba: Association of Yemeni American which Almontaser is a board member.[2] The T-shirt had the words, "Intifada NYC" on it, which, according to the New York Post, was "apparently a call for a Gaza-style uprising in the Big Apple".[3] In an interview with The Post, Almontaser was asked for the Arabic root word of the word Intifada. Almontaser, who was accompanied on the phone by a Dept of Education press expert, explained that the word "comes from the root word that means 'shaking off'. That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic." To a follow up question stating the girls at AWAAM are planning a Gaza-style uprising, Almontaser added that she understood that "it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas" and that she does not "believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City." The Post quoted her as saying "I think it's pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society . . . and shaking off oppression." (ellipses in original).[3] The "it's" in her statement is referring to the training the girls were getting at this youth program.

Almontaser denied using the phrase "shaking off oppression," and a federal appeals court ruled that the Post had quoted her “incorrectly and misleadingly.”[4]

The next day, the Board of Education issued a statement without her approval that said, "By minimizing the word's historical associations I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence....That view is anathema to me and the very opposite of my life's work."[5]

On August 9, 2007 Randi Weingartend president of the New York City teachers' union, wrote a letter to the Post agreeing with the editorial and calling for Almontaser's head. New Visions for Public Schools, Chancellor Klein and Mayor Bloomberg demanded Almontaser's resignation by 8 AM the next morning threatening to nix the school if she didn't resign. The full account was highlighted in the front page New York Times article "Critics Cost Muslim Educator Her Dream Job".[6]

Support for Almontaser

In a New York Times article, journalism professor Samuel G. Freedman wrote, "For anyone who bothered to look for it, Almontaser left a clear, public record of interfaith activism and outreach across the boundaries of race, ethnicity and religion. Her efforts, especially after the September 11 attacks, earned her honors, grants and fellowships. She has collaborated so often with Jewish organizations that an Arab-American newspaper, Aramica, castigated her earlier this summer for being too close to a 'Zionist organization,' meaning the Anti-Defamation League. Almontaser has twice been profiled on Voice of America as an accomplished Muslim American."[7] Though media sources have sometimes misquoted Almontaser and misrepresented the facts, there have been numerous interviews directly with Almontaser which have allowed her to tell her story. Some examples are her recent interviews on National Public Radio's the Brian Lehrer Show,[8] and Democracy Now! [9]

Local politicians like Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz have expressed support for Almontaser, calling for her to be reinstated. Markowitz noted that Almontaser "was dumped on, and she doesn't deserve it" and that he has "witnessed her work, bringing Muslims and Jews and other religions together." [10] Additionally, Councilman John Liu noted that the Department of Education, "and this administration acted totally irresponsibly and violated the trust placed in them in what they allowed to happen to Debbie Almontaser."[11]

Along with local politicians, there was an outpouring of community support for Almontaser, with hundreds of individuals and organizations signing statements in support of Almontaser and the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA). [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] A diverse community group called Communities in Support of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (CISKGIA) formed in order to show support for the school as well as Almontaser's rights. This group has mantained that that KGIA requires better support from the Department of Education and New Visions in order to succeed, and has also been a strong voice for Debbie Almontaser's reinstatement throughout this controversy. CISKGIA organized well attended press conferences and press releases in order to get the truth out. It also organized an event celebrating the original vision of the school on January 29, 2008 where a few hundred people attended to support Debbie Almontaser's and the school she envision with her design team who were honored that evening.,[17] and maintains an informational website at In 2011 this group noted with disappointment the down-sizing of the school as a sign of the lack of political support it had warned about. [3]

A film called Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech from HBO Films uses Almontaser's case as an example of a violation of the 1st Amendment rights.

Subsequent legal action

On November 19, 2007, Almontaser brought a lawsuit claiming that, in forcing her to resign because of her interview with the New York Post, and denying her the opportunity to be considered for the position of permanent principal at the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the Department of Education violated her First Amendment rights.[18][19] On February 5, 2008, Almontaser requested that the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan grant a preliminary injunction to force the board of education to give her an interview for the job of principal.[20] On March 20, the Appeals court rejected her request and sent it back to the trial court.[21][22] The judgement cited that when she was instructed to speak to the press, she was mandated not to speak about the t-shirts. She had made statements during the phone call “I think [the t-shirts are] pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society.” However, the reason the claim was rejected is due to the precedent set in the much dissented Garcetti v. Ceballos that the First Amendment does not apply to public employees in the pursuit of their official duties.[23]

On March 3, she filed an amended complaint in her federal lawsuit and a charge with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, both of which assert that Department of Education (DOE) officials discriminated against her on the basis of race, religion, and national origin.[24] The judge rejected Amontaser's claim.[25]

In March, 2010, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled that Almontaser had been unfairly discriminated against and urged the Department of Education to consider reinstating Almontaser, paying her backwages, legal fees, and damages of $300,000.[26] Despite the findings of the EEOC, Almontaser announced that she will not sue the Department of Education, citing the personal costs of pursuing a lawsuit over a number of years.[26]

Personal life and community activism

According to the Jewish Week, Almontaser invited hundreds of Jews and Christians to her own home after the 9/11 attack. She had joined organizations to form social action groups, such as We Are All Brooklyn, an inter-ethnic initiative supported by the Jewish Community Relations Council, to combat hate crimes in Brooklyn. Almontaser also trained with the Anti-Defamation League's anti-bias program, A World of Difference, as a facilitator for diversity training and inter-group dynamics in the public schools.[27]

She has conducted sensitivity training and presentations in Churches, Synagogues and other houses of worship.[1] Almontaser has also worked as a liaison between the Muslim community and the NYPD.[28] Her son spent months at the World Trade Center site as a member of the Army National Guard and her cousins have served the US Military in Iraq.

Almontaser has also been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Pax Christi Metro New York 2008 Peacemaker Award,[29] and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice's annual Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer Risk-Taker Award in 2007.[30]


  1. ^ a b From Yemen to Coney Island; From Teacher to Community Activist
  2. ^ The T-shirt and its organization had no ties to the school or Almontaser as the school's principal.Democracy Now, Principal at New NYC Arabic-Language School Forced to Resign, August 13th, 2007. Interview with Mona Eldahry, co-founder of AWAAM, Arab women active in the Arts and Media, on the meaning of the "Intifada NYC" T-shirt.
  3. ^ a b Chuck Bennett (2007-08-06). "City Principal Is 'Revolting'". New York Post. Retrieved 2007-11-21. 
  4. ^ Battle in Brooklyn: A Principal’s Rise and Fall; Critics Cost Muslim Educator Her Dream School, By Andrea Elliott, New York Times, April 28, 2008
  5. ^ Green, Elizabeth (2007-08-07). "Arab School Principal Says She Regrets Intifada Remarks". New York Sun. Retrieved 2007-11-21. 
  6. ^ Elliott, Andrea (2008 4/28). "Critics Cost Muslim Educator Her Dream Job". New York Times. Retrieved May 1, 2010. 
  7. ^ She was also awarded the Revson Fellowship in 2004 for her contribution to city life,such as her bridge-building work in New York City. In the past few years, Almontaser has received a few awards from faith based groups such as Affinity Health Plan and proclamations for building bridges of understanding from the Borough President of Brooklyn and the Mayor of the City of New York for Arab Heritage Week. In 2004 Almontaser received the Revson Fellowship award for her contributions to City life. On Education: Critics Ignored Record Of a Muslim Principal, by Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times, August 29, 2007.
  8. ^ interview on The Brian Lehrer Show, NPR, May 7, 2008.
  9. ^ Ousted NYC Arabic School Principal Debbie Almontaser Speaks Out on the New McCarthyism & Rightwing Media Attacks, interview on Democracy Now!, April 29, 2008.
  10. ^ "Beep backs Arabic school, urges controversial principal be reinstated". Daily News (New York). September 20, 2007. 
  11. ^ NY1: Top Stories
  12. ^ Communities in Support of KGIA website. "Support for Debbie Almontaser and KGIA". 
  13. ^ Communities in Support of KGIA website. "Jewish Leaders on KGIA". 
  14. ^ Communities in Support of KGIA website. "Muslim & Arab Community on KGIA". 
  15. ^ Communities in Support of KGIA website. "Mumia on KGIA". 
  16. ^ Green, Elizabeth. "New York Sun : "Educators: Mayor Forded Arabic School Principal's Exit". 
  17. ^ "Event to Celebrate the Vision of KGIA is a Resounding Success". 2008-01-28. 
  18. ^ Almontaser v. New York City Department of Education et al Debbie Almontaser, plaintiff, vs. New York City Department of Education, Joel Klein, Rosemary Stuart, City of New York, Michael Bloomberg and Dennis Walcott, defendant, Case Number: 1:2007cv10444, Filed: November 19, 2007
  19. ^ Ex-Arabic School Head Readies Lawsuit Against City - October 17, 2007 - The New York Sun
  21. ^ NY appeals court rejects claim by Arabic school principal, AP, International Herald Tribune, March 20, 2008
  22. ^ 07-5468-cv Debbie Almontaser v. NYC Dep't of Educ., United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, August Term, 2007, (Argued: February 5, 2008 Decided: March 20, 2008) Docket No. 07-5468-cv, Before: Newman, Winter, and B.D. Parker, Circuit Judges. (PDF)
  24. ^ Press release, Arab-American Educator Charges NYC Department of Education with Discrimination, March 3, 2008.
  25. ^ Principal's Comments to Press Were Not Protected Speech, Mark Walsh The School Law Blog (Education Week) September 7, 2009 [2]
  26. ^ a b Jennifer Medina (May 25, 2010). "Ex-Principal of Arabic School Won’t Sue City". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-26. 
  27. ^ [The Jewish Week|find article from here=}}
  28. ^ NPR: Teacher Works for Understanding of U.S. Muslims
  29. ^ Commonweal Magazine : "Debbie Almontaser, Peacemaker" by Paul Moses
  30. ^ Jews for Racial and Economic Justice website: "11th Annual Marshall T. Meyer Risk-Taker Awards"


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