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A New Jersey teacher accused of pulling a student's hijab sues an Olympic fencer

In this Aug. 8, 2016, file photo, Ibtihaj Muhammad waits for her match at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Vincent Thian
/
AP
In this Aug. 8, 2016, file photo, Ibtihaj Muhammad waits for her match at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

U.S. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is facing a defamation lawsuit from a New Jersey teacher over allegations the Olympian ruined the teacher's reputation and career over an incident involving one of the woman's students.

Last year, one of Tamar Herman's second grade students at Seth Boyden Elementary School, a 7-year-old girl who is Black and Muslim, reported that Herman had yanked her hijab from her head while at school. The girl came home upset and told her mother.

Muhammad's relation to the family is unclear, but the Olympian got wind of the case. She recounted the young girl's story with her own social media post (that has since been deleted), calling the teacher's actions abuse. The post went viral.

From there, the local Maplewood community was in uproar, the New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy weighed in, and the Council on American Islamic Relations' New Jersey branch also called for Herman's firing. Herman was even criminally investigated over the case. Prosecutors declined to press charges.

Herman alleges her reputation was ruined, she was threatened and bullied, and placed on leave by the school district, her lawsuit against Muhammad states. Herman, who is Jewish, says she also faced antisemitic vitriol.

"She suffered and continues to suffer from emotional and mental harm to such a degree that she has had no realistic choice but to permanently move out of her home and, prior to that, had to ask for police protection and temporarily relocate in the immediate aftermath of Defendants' lies," her lawsuit says.

Herman also named CAIR and its leaders in the lawsuit against Muhammad. She has also separately sued the South Orange-Maplewood School District.

The child's family sued Herman and the school district back in March, claiming emotional harm.

What started off as a social media post, took off

Muhammad, herself a resident of Maplewood, won a bronze medal during the 2016 Rio Olympics. She became the first American Muslim woman to win an Olympic medal and was the first woman to represent the U.S. at the Olympic Games while wearing a hijab.

She took to social media in October 2021, writing that Herman had told the student "that her hair was beautiful and she did not have to wear hijab to school anymore," according to local reports quoting from her since-deleted social media post.

"Imagine being a child and stripped of your clothing in front of your classmates?" Muhammad said. "Imagine the humiliation and trauma this experience has caused her. This is abuse. Schools should be a haven for all of our kids to feel safe, welcome and protected — no matter their faith."

Herman says what occurred was a misunderstanding.

On Oct. 6, 2021, Herman says she saw her student "wearing a hood that was blocking her eyes," the court documents state. She pushed back what she thought was a hood, but realized it was her hijab. She placed it back on her head and apologized, the lawsuit claims.

Herman remains on administrative leave.

This case is not the first allegation of discrimination within the South Orange-Maplewood School District. A parents' group called the Black Parents Workshop sued the district in 2018 over allegations that district officials allowed racial segregation and racial disparities in student discipline and class enrollment. A settlement was reached in 2020, with the district agreeing to make several changes and to pay the plaintiffs.

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