New York School Accused of Forcing Learning-Disabled Muslim Child to Sign False Oath of Loyalty to ISIS

A 12-year-old boy with severe learning disabilities was forced “under extreme duress” by his school officials to write a false confession saying he is a member of ISIS and a terrorist who intends to detonate a bomb, his family charged in a lawsuit filed against a Long Island middle school earlier this month. According to the plaintiffs, the boy was targeted because he is a Muslim of Pakistani national origin, and was first bullied by his classmates and then criminalized by the administrators entrusted to protect him.

According to the complaint, which was filed in federal court against the East Islip, New York school district and key officials, Nashwan Uppal has a “known social, language and learning disability" that includes “severely impaired language skills” and “significant weaknesses” in cognitive development.

The set of events that led to the allegedly coerced confession began on January 6, when a group of older students began bullying and harassing Nashwan in the school cafeteria, asking him where he was from and calling him a terrorist. According to the complaint, the older students followed Nashwan around the lunchroom, repeatedly asking him, “what he was going to blow up next.”

The complaint states, “in a final attempt to stop the undying bullying and harassment which incredibly went unnoticed or ignored by patrolling teachers, cafeteria aides and/or monitors who did not intervene, and after having the word 'terrorist' and the question 'what are you going to blow up next’ repeatedly ingrained into his head by the bullies, Nashwan told the bullies that he is a terrorist and he is going to blow up the fence.”

According to the lawsuit, due to Nashwan’s learning disabilities, he did not fully understand what a “terrorist” is, mistaking the term as a reference to someone who “moves place to place,” indicating he may have confused the word with “tourist.”

Instead of coming to the child’s defense, school officials responded by violating Nashwan’s most basic rights, the complaint states.

A day after the bullying incident, Nashwan was pulled out of gym class and cornered by the principal and assistant principal, who proceeded to shout at the 12-year-old while asking him if he was a terrorist, the suit charges. Both officials reportedly peppered Nashwan with questions, including, “do you know who Osama is” and repeatedly bellowed, “don’t lie to us.”

At no point was Nashwan informed of his right to remain silent or obtain counsel, the suit charges. During the course of this aggressive questioning, Nashran was eventually forced to make a false confession that he “was a terrorist and that he said he was going to blow up the school fence,” the complaint states.

Nashwan was then forced to meet with security and police officers and not allowed to see his mother, Nubaisha Amar, who had been informed by school officials that her son had pledged loyalty to ISIS and was planning to blow up the school.

The boy and his mother were then taken to the police station in a squad car, and law enforcement later searched the family home.

The incident has left a long-term imprint on Nashwan, the suit states, causing him "extreme emotional distress, pain and suffering, anxiety, depression, nightmares, sleeplessness, crying, fear, humiliation, negative stigma, stress and other psychological trauma, the extent of which remains currently unknown.”

Nashwan’s lawyer, David Antwork, told AlterNet that this is a clear-cut case of religious and ethnic discrimination.

"To know this case is to know Nashwan,” said Antwork. “Nashwan suffers from severe learning, communicative, vocabulary and language disabilities. He is also a sweet, well-mannered, cooperative and respectful child. These are not my words—these are the school district's own words from years of reports and evaluations prepared through Nashwan's enrollment in the special education department. Thus, the unlawful actions of the defendants went far beyond reason, rationality and decency, and were undertaken solely as a result of Nashwan's religion and ethnicity."

Michael German, a fellow with NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, told AlterNet that “this is part of a much larger problem. The FBI and other government agencies are formalizing a program that would accelerate this type of reporting, known as Countering Violent Extremism.”

In March, the FBI released new guidelines instructing high schools across the country to spy on and report students who exhibit signs of violent extremism. Under the directive, this category is defined so broadly that it includes young people who travel to “suspicious” countries, criticize Western corruption and possess “inherent risk factors” like immigrant backgrounds. Critics have slammed the guidelines as a recipe for the mass criminalization of students, particularly Muslims and children of color.

The FBI’s “Don’t Be a Puppet” website encourages public school students and educators to monitor and report children for signs they might commit violent acts in the future. Federal agencies continue to embrace policies aimed at monitoring behaviors that are allegedly tied to violent extremism, even though this model has been debunked by years of scholarly research.

Heather Weaver, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, told AlterNet that “harassment of Muslim kids in public schools has ramped up exponentially over the past 18 months, not just by peers but school officials too. This harassment goes beyond what we have seen in the past. There is a trend where Muslim kids are being accused of very serious crimes.”

The case of Irving, Texas student Ahmed Mohamed captured global headlines last year when the 14-year-old was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school, after a teacher thought it was a bomb. Last December, a 13-year-old girl in Gwinnett County, Georgia, was reportedly asked by a teacher if she was carrying a bomb in her backpack. The girl, who was born in Somalia, was wearing a hijab.

According to Weaver, such baseless accusations “violate the trust of parents and families.”

Asked to remark on Nashwan's case, East Islip Union Free School District spokesman Michael Ganci told AlterNet, "The district does not comment on active litigation."


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