Islamophobic attack – hijab torn off student: Internal emails reveal how school scrambled

Otago Daily Times,
Publish Date
Thu, 7 Apr 2022, 10:38am
(Photo / NZ Herald)
(Photo / NZ Herald)

Islamophobic attack – hijab torn off student: Internal emails reveal how school scrambled

Otago Daily Times,
Publish Date
Thu, 7 Apr 2022, 10:38am

Internal emails have revealed the inside story of how Otago Girls' High School scrambled to respond to global condemnation over an Islamophobic attack. 

The school found itself in the middle of a firestorm after Dunedin student Hoda Al Jamaa, 17, was taken to hospital after she was attacked and her hijab pulled off at the school on Wednesday, February 9. 

Her assailants, fellow pupils at the school, filmed the attack and posted it on social media. 

The attack sparked an international outcry and led to a "Justice for Hoda" campaign. 

American model Bella Hadid posted about it on her Instagram account having 49 million followers, while prominent New Zealanders Sonny Bill Williams and Helen Clark joined calls for action. 

Emails released to the Otago Daily Times under the Official Information Act show how the school's senior management team responded to the incident and the intense criticism the school faced which spilled over into threats against staff and online abuse. 

Senior staff were at first confident they had the incident contained, but escalating levels of online abuse led to concerns things could spill over into a face-to-face confrontation. 

The pressure was so great some senior members of staff received counselling sessions. 

On Saturday, February 12, the day after the video of the assault had first received media coverage, principal Bridget Davidson told school board chairwoman Lyn Hurring the school was "stretched to the limit with the Muslim community demanding constant communication and response". 

She was confident things were coming together, but it could take "a bit of time" until the school could be proactive on the education and public relations fronts. 

Hurring replied expressing confidence Davidson had everything under control. 

Another email, on Sunday, congratulated Davidson for her comments in an ODT article. 

"It reads really well. Well done!" she said. 

But on Thursday, February 17, Davidson forwarded an abusive email to the senior leadership team and said things had reached a new level. 

Board member and chairwoman of the school's disciplinary subcommittee Ann Bixley told Davidson and Hurring an hour and a-half later she suspected there was plenty of misinformation circulating. 

"I think the response here and the media statements have been appropriate," she said. 
Hurring agreed, saying it was "beyond frustrating" the school was being accused of doing nothing. 

On Friday morning, deputy principal Chris Richards called for more urgent support for the school's office staff. 

They had spent several hours deleting messages, blocking down social media and had begun to field abusive phone calls. 

"I guess the next step is to come in and confront us in person," said a member of the office staff. 

That afternoon, the school released a statement saying the school board had completed its formal disciplinary processes, but could not share the outcome. 

It called for the confidentiality of the process to be respected along with the privacy of those involved. 

Over the weekend, several messages of support sent to the school were shared between board members. 

One email from Davidson shared a supportive letter and referenced communications from Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon. 

"I am trying to give the vibe we are actually very culturally aware and competent," Davidson wrote. 

In an email exchange on Sunday, February 20, Davidson offered Hurring a counselling session "as we are all having one", to which Hurring agreed. 

The documents also revealed that in the past five years, no complaints had been received by the school's board regarding racism or bullying. 

Over the same period 11 incidents had resulted in complaints to the principal, where they were resolved. 

Seven involved verbal putdowns or threatening behaviour, three cyberbullying and one was a physical incident.