Former Student Candidate for School Board Says She Was Target of Islamophobic Messages, Threats

Former Student Candidate for School Board Says She Was Target of Islamophobic Messages, Threats

Rockville police have launched an investigation into the hateful emails

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Nimah Nayel

Via Nimah Nayel

It had been weeks since Richard Montgomery High junior Nimah Nayel had wound down her campaign for student member of the Montgomery County school board with a graceful concession speech to the winner.

Despite that, on May 10, the 16-year-old opened her email to find a batch of new messages sent via the contact form on her campaign website.

“CHOKE ON UR HIJAB,” Nayel–who is Muslim and wears a head covering–read.   

Another message told her to slit her wrists, while another stated that if she’d won the election, the writer would have “shot up mcps (Montgomery County Public Schools).”

Nayel said she’d received ugly comments about her race and religion during the campaign, but not like these.

“I was visibly shaken,” Nayel, who’d been in first period at school when she saw the messages, said in a Wednesday phone interview. “It was kind of traumatic to see that people are out there that think these things about me. I didn’t know how to react for a couple minutes.”

The emails were riddled with expletives, slurs and threats, and Nayel said that while she’d ignored earlier comments, she realized she couldn’t overlook these ones.

So on Tuesday, Nayel stepped in front of TV news cameras and reporters in Baltimore to denounce the hateful speech.

“I stand here to let you know that I am not and never will be afraid of cowards,” she said during a press conference hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations at its Baltimore offices.

Nayel volunteers at CAIR, and she and her mother had turned to the organization for advice about the threatening emails.  

Nayel said she also showed the emails to her school administrators and Richard Montgomery’s school resource officer, and Rockville City police are now conducting an investigation. CAIR is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, but Nayel said police told her it will be difficult to track down the person or people who sent the emails.

Nimah Nayel posted screenshots of the emails to Twitter (the messages are not censored and contain offensive language).

But that wasn’t her primary objective in speaking out, she said. Instead, Nayel said she wanted to show other students of color and Muslim students that they don’t have to be cowed by pushback.

Nayel said she chose to embrace her religious background and her Sudanese heritage as she was campaigning earlier this year. No student should feel uncomfortable running for the school board because of race or religion, Nayel said, and she hopes to show other Muslim students they can make it as far or farther than she did.

Nayel narrowly lost the April 25 election to her fellow Richard Montgomery student, Ananya Tadikonda, who will begin her one-year term on the board July 1.

School board member Jill Ortman-Fouse called Nayel “fearless” in a Twitter post that went on to list other recent examples of bigotry or bias against students. Ortman-Fouse said the number of hate incidents in MCPS and the broader community has surprised her since she became a board member.

“I don’t know if there’s more racism and bias than there was before or that people are just more comfortable being racist and biased,” Ortman-Fouse said.

Teaching students to become compassionate and to collaborate across political, racial and ethnic lines is a responsibility for MCPS, she said.

Ortman-Fouse said she’s reached out Nayel to express sorrow about the hateful speech.

Nayel said that since she’s gone public about the messages, she’s received a flood of support.

“It reminds me that for every bad person out there, there are hundreds of good people out there, and we just need to fight against the hatred that’s making people feel this kind of pain,” she said.

MCPS officials wrote in a statement that as soon as Richard Montgomery staff learned of the threats against Nayel, the messages were reported to the police and to school security.

“[I]f it is discovered that these threats and hateful messages were sent by MCPS students, they will receive consequences aligned with our Student Code of Conduct and will be referred to law enforcement,” the statement read. “We will not tolerate this type of behavior. We are dedicated to providing a safe and welcoming learning environment for all of our students.”

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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