Feds: Dearborn Heights’ Crestwood Schools discriminated against Arab Americans in hiring, recruiting
By Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press Education Writer
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has found the Crestwood School District in Dearborn Heights violated the federal Civil Rights Act by failing to hire Arab-American and minority teachers, discriminating against Arab Americans in its hiring and recruiting practices and retaliating against a guidance counselor who raised concerns about those and other issues in the district.
The EEOC, in the July 11 ruling, is recommending the district compensate the counselor — Hiam Brinjikji — $40,000 and agree to a host of steps to change its hiring practices.
“This is a significant development,” said Shereef Akeel, the attorney for Brinjikji.
Brinjikji in 2011 filed complaints with the EEOC, the U.S. Department of Education and the Justice Department. Akeel said the other complaints — which allege the district is failing to provide required services to students for whom English is a second language — are pending.
“I feel a sense of vindication,” Brinjikji said. “Not just for myself, but for the whole student body and for the parents of the students who were not receiving the educational services they were entitled to.”
About 3,500 students are enrolled in the district. Brinjikji said a significant number of them are Arab American. State data show that of the 3,500 students, 11% are identified as English-language learners.
“With the demographic changes in the district and the number of Arab-American families that have set root in Dearborn Heights, you had a disproportionate representation of Arab-American teachers in comparison to the large and evolving Arab-American student body,” Akeel said.
Brinjikji said that up until a year ago, the district only had four Arab-American teachers, one Arab-American counselor, no Arab-American administrators and a few paraprofessionals. Last summer, though, she said the district made more Arab-American hires, which she said she believes is a result of her complaints.
Akeel said the district retaliated against her by placing what he described as meritless reprimands in her personnel file, ostracizing her, removing her from e-mail lists and excluding her from meetings.
Laurine VanValkenburg, superintendent of the Crestwood district, said she continues to deny that the district has discriminated against students, employees or applicants. She noted that the EEOC didn’t list any specific instances in which the district violated the Civil Rights Act.
“While the EEOC has determined that there is reasonable cause to believe that these allegations are true, its determination does not state any factual basis for such a conclusion,” she said.
She said the district disagrees with the decision. “But we will enter into discussions with the EEOC regarding this matter,” she said.
On Brinjikji’s allegation that the district had only one ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher and a few paraprofessionals as recently as a year ago, VanValkenburg said, “At one time, that was true. Right now, I can tell you we have ESL teachers and paraprofessionals in each building.”
And, she said, ESL students are exceeding goals.
“Some of our highest-achieving students either are or have been in the ESL program,” VanValkenburg said.
Among the steps suggested by the EEOC in its recommended agreement, which all parties would have to sign:
■ The district must remove any disciplinary or pending disciplinary records from Brinjikji’s personnel file that were dated June 1, 2011, until the date of the agreement.
■ The district must, within 60 days, develop a written policy and plan that describes how it will recruit, hire and promote a wide and diverse pool of candidates to achieve and maintain a diverse faculty and staff.
■ Notices about staff openings must be sent to a number of community groups, including ACCESS, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
■ The district must create a training program for district and school leaders about the new procedures for recruitment and hiring.
■ The district must post, in English and Arabic, a notice in every school and the administration building that spells out its commitment to follow federal law.
Brinjikji said she feels strongly about advocating for the kids and their educational rights, saying denying them those rights “is a form of oppression. Education is a basic human right.”
Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LoriAHiggins.