The St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations on Wednesday showed up on the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus and publicly criticized the school’s handling of complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination from a Muslim student.
The student, Fatma El-Walid, whose family is from Libya but lives in Columbia, has filed a lawsuit against professor Michael Garcia. It accuses him of making sexually harassing and discriminatory remarks that referred to her religion and traditional dress.
In the shadow of the MU columns, the organization called for mandatory sensitivity and cultural competency training classes for faculty, staff and students.
In October, then-MU chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced that starting in January, all incoming freshmen would be required to complete an online diversity and inclusion training program.
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But that is not enough, said Faizan Syed, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“We want face-to-face sensitivity training,” Syed said. “Online training does not work because many online trainings are not taken seriously. People just run through them.”
Syed said El-Walid came to the council for help and filed a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The lawsuit also names the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus and the four-campus university system’s Board of Curators.
The university said it would not comment on ongoing litigation. Garcia could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuit seeks damages of $25,000 for El-Walid, a Muslim who wears the hijab, a head covering worn in public by some Muslim women. It alleges that Garcia used offensive language during the cellular biology class he taught and El-Walid attended.
According to the lawsuit, El-Walid, currently an MU senior in the medical field, experienced crying spells, her grades dropped and she lost a scholarship because of sexist, demeaning and humiliating comments from Garcia in class and other times in March 2015.
It alleges that El-Walid was subjected to offensive and unwanted sexual comments by Garcia, whom she accuses in the lawsuit of “creating a sexually hostile learning environment” for her. According to the suit, Garcia made several offensive remarks during a meeting of students in his office in March. The suit alleges Garcia asked El-Walid a series of questions including, “Have you ever been called a towel head on campus before?” and “Are you a Jew hater?”
On Wednesday the council called for the university to discipline Garcia, a tenured professor.
The El-Walid suit was filed November 30 after turmoil erupted on the campus when a predominantly black student group, Concerned Student 1950, staged a weeklong campout and hunger strike claiming systemic oppression and unwelcoming racial climate on the campus. The events led to the resignation of the MU chancellor and president of the four-campus University of Missouri System.