Religious discrimination case continues in federal court

A teacher in the Watson Chapel School District who claims he was discriminated against because of his religion and was subjected to a hostile work environment admitted in federal court Wednesday that he did not ask anyone in the district if he could wear Muslim attire to school in 2010.

Mark Leon Essex Smith was sent home by Assistant Principal Henry Webb on Sept. 10, 2010, when he wore a dashiki and kufi to celebrate a Muslim holiday.

The school district contended that Smith was not discriminated against because his religion did not require him to wear the attire and that the district applies a neutral policy and refrains from taking any public position to promote political candidates, political parties and theologies.

Smith’s trial began in U.S. District Court at Pine Bluff Tuesday after U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker denied a motion filed by the school district for summary judgment, ruling that there were issues of fact that remained.

Smith had been an algebra teacher in the district and was reassigned to an alternative learning position. The new position, he said, was in retaliation for Smith filing an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission complaint against Webb.

Baker allowed attorney Michael Dennis, who is representing the district, to introduce a series of e-mails between Smith and parents of students who were in his math class, all of whom expressed concern about their children’s grades.

In one of those, Smith reportedly asked a parent “what would satisfy you? and the parent replied that it didn’t matter what would satisfy them,” and said Smith “should do what’s right.”

Dennis also introduced a note from a parent who said they were “displeased with Smith’s teaching methods,” and a second from a parent who wanted their child taken out of Smith’s classroom.

Asked how many parents had sent e-mails to Smith complaining about their children’s grades, Smith said “three,” adding that “the parents were not in the classroom and didn’t know if their children turned in their homework.”

Dennis said that by the end of the first nine weeks of the first semester in 2010, “more than half of the students in Smith’s algebra class were failing the class,” causing Webb to schedule a conference between Smith, Brenda Melton, the assistant superintendent for instruction, and the school district’s math coach to discuss ways to improve Smith’s teaching techniques.

Smith said Melton told him she wanted “an even distribution of grades,” and denied that any help was offered, but according to a transcript of Smith’s deposition taken in August, Smith said Melton did offer help. He claimed however that the help was not given until the spring semester, not in the fall semester.

Again referring to the deposition from Smith, Dennis said there was concern about students’ grades in the first semester and the progress they were making, and Smith admitted that his earlier statement was “incorrect.”

Additionally, Dennis asked Smith about statements he had made that “there’s nothing a teacher can do to affect grades, it’s really up to the students,” and Smith admitted making the statements.

Asked why he did not seek a teaching job in another school district when he was notified in May 2011 that he would be reassigned to alternative learning, Smith said he “would have had to take a decrease in pay.”