Nev. School District Settles Muslim Suit for $350K

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RENO, Nev. (AP) - A young Muslim woman who said her complaints of bullying and death threats went unheeded by administrators at her Reno-area high school will receive $350,000 in a settlement announced Wednesday with the Washoe County School District.

Jana Elhifny, an Egyptian-American student who openly displayed her Islamic faith and wore a religious headscarf, dropped out of North Valleys High School in December 2004. In a federal civil rights lawsuit, she said she was too frightened to attend school and that teachers and administrators did not take steps to stop the harassment.

In a related settlement, Stephanie Hart, a non-Muslim who said she was ostracized and forced to leave the school after she befriended Elhifny, will receive $50,000. The district also agreed to help Hart get a high school diploma.

The monetary awards will be paid by the district's insurance carrier.

Both women said they were glad to move on but were disappointed by the experience.

"Having a settlement is not better than having a normal education," Elhifny told The Associated Press when reached by telephone in Mahala, Egypt.

"It's 2009. Things like that shouldn't happen," said Elhifny, who is married and has a 2-year-old son.

Hart, also 21 and a mother, said the suit was not about money.

"It's so wrong what happened," said Hart, now living in Colfax, Calif. "We were both being harassed.

"She came here to experience something and got total negativity," Hart said. "She basically had to flee the country to feel safe again."

Elhifny was born in the United States, and her family returned to Egypt when she was in the first grade. In 2003, the family moved to Reno and Elhifny enrolled in the fall.

In her lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, she said students spit and threw food at her, shoved her against walls and threatened to kill her on Sept. 11, 2003, on the two-year anniversary of the U.S. terrorist attacks.

When Elhifny took her complaints to school officials, they told her she should expect the treatment and suggested she refrain from wearing her religious headscarf, called a hijab, the lawsuit said.

"Ms. Elhifny and Ms. Hart had the courage to stand up for themselves and defend their right to a safe education," said Peter Obstler, a San Francisco attorney whose firm handled the women's lawsuits for free, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.

Once when Hart tried to talk with the principal about the harassment of her friend, she was told to mind her own business and "act like a good American," the suit alleged.

School district lawyer Robert Cox said in a written statement that the district welcomed the settlement, "especially in light of its insurance company's willingness to fund a resolution."

He also praised what he called "exemplary efforts" by school staff and administrators in their "professional and thorough handling of educational and personal issues" raised by Elhifny.

Cox told The Associated Press that school officials tried to investigate Elhifny's claims and accommodate her education.

"The school district did everything it could to try to find and alleviate the problem," Cox said, and added Elhifny was unable to identify or describe her antagonists.

"She and her mother voluntarily withdrew from the school and rejected other educational opportunities," such as night school or an all-girls program, he said.

Under the settlement, neither the district nor school administrators named as defendants admit wrongdoing.

"Our client basically said she was repeatedly harassed," ACLU attorney Lee Rowland said. "The school district alleged she was given other options. But those facts never went to trial."

School district officials agreed to work with the women's lawyers to develop harassment and discrimination policies.

"I don't believe a district pays $400,000 if it believes it has no exposure," Obstler said, and added that no one was fired over the incidents.

It is the second student harassment settlement paid by the school district this decade.

In 2002, Derek Henkle received $451,000 to settle his discrimination suit that claimed the district failed to protect him from continued harassment because he is gay.

According to court documents, Henkle's harassment was so pervasive that, following the advice of principals, he transferred to three different area high schools from 1995 to 1997 before he finally dropped out.