Parent accuses Mason schools, 'Enquirer' of depicting daughter as part of immigrant burden on district

Fearful of their safety in the wake of Islamic terrorist attacks, the family moved the 5-year-old to a private school.

A University Medical Center surgeon and Mason resident whose 5-year-old daughter was portrayed in a newspaper article about the strains brought on the Mason school system by Arabic-speaking immigrant children has filed suit against the system and The Cincinnati Enquirer.

The lawsuit, filed by Ayman Mahdy in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati last month, alleges that his daughter’s privacy was invaded and that the family was exposed to potential racial violence. Mahdy says he was so concerned about his daughter’s emotional distress that he transferred her to a private school “at considerable expense.”

The story initially ran online Dec. 1, 2015 and appeared on the cover of The Enquirer the next day with the headline, “Arabic-speaking kids overwhelm Mason.” (The headline has since been changed to "There's more Arabic at Mason schools. Here's why.") A photo of Mahdy’s daughter — wearing a name tag — accompanied the story in print, online and later in national publication USA Today and other online sources. Her name doesn't currently appear in the text of the article.

The article described how a Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center program called Destination Excellence has drawn a large number of foreign families seeking care for seriously ill children. Mason has 483 students for whom English is their second language, the article said, and of the 39 who speak Arabic, “most” are there through Destination Excellence. Mason City Schools Superintendent Gail Kist-Kline was quoted as saying that the program would cost the system $522,000 last school year.

But district officials and the Enquirer “falsely associated” Mahdy’s 5-year-old daughter, a kindergartner, with the problems caused by Destination Excellence, the suit claims. Mahdy says she's not in the program, was born in the United States, speaks English as her primary language and is “being raised as an ordinary American girl.” He says the family owns a home in Mason and pays property taxes there.

“The Mahdys’ justifiable fears of having ‘J.M.’ identified by photograph, name, community of residence and school of attendance as an example of the supposed ‘problem’ of Arabic-speaking students overwhelming Mason City Schools can only be understood in the context of current events and the wave of Islamaphobia (sic) that is currently sweeping across our country,” the suit states.

“The actions of these four Mason City School District officials in bringing the media into their classroom, and in presenting ‘J.M’ to the media as a generic Arab-type girls to illustrate their complaints, were motivated by an intent to discriminate and to enlist community support of their efforts to rid the Mason City School District of the 51 Arabic-speaking students who had recently enrolled in its ESL program.”

The lawsuit also details the lengths it says superintendent Kist-Kline went to determine whether she could legally block the Arabic-speaking students from the school, including seeking legal opinions from the Ohio Attorney General, Ohio Department of Education and Mason area state representatives. Kist-Kline then contacted The Enquirer to express her concerns over the 51 new Arabic-speaking students in the 10,700 district student population, the suit states. The suit also includes reader comments on the article that it says demonstrate xenophobia, anti-Muslim prejudice and outright racism.

Enquirer attorney Jack Greiner says the publication believes it acted appropriately by following directions provided by the school and reporting on an issue of public importance. A Mason schools spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

Mahdy, an Egyptian, names the school district, Kist-Kline, three employees of the Mason Early Childhood Center, the Enquirer, its top editor, K-12 education reporter and a photographer as defendants. The suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

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