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Teacher Raised Conspiracy Theory on 9/11

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 14, 2002; Page B03

A Prince George's County middle school teacher, talking with seventh-grade math students on the anniversary of Sept. 11, mentioned a "conspiracy theory" that blamed the United States government for the deadly attacks.

The comment by Uzma Salim Iqbal, a teacher at James Madison Middle School for the past year and a half, prompted complaints from the parents of at least two students. After meeting with Iqbal and the parents, Principal Bruce L. Tyler sent a letter to all of the school's parents yesterday to explain what happened.

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Tyler's letter did not name the teacher or repeat any of her specific remarks.

"We had a short but meaningful program on the events of 9/11. At the end of our program, I instructed teachers to spend a moment discussing these events with their students," Tyler's three-paragraph letter stated. "During the discussion in one of our classes, a teacher mentioned something she had heard in the media as an example.

"The example given was a theory . . . which she personally found to be preposterous," the letter continued. "The example was used to teach students to question and analyze information presented in the media as well as other external sources."

Prince George's schools chief Iris T. Metts said she learned of the Wednesday classroom discussion only yesterday.

Metts said the school system had advised its teachers to follow a state Department of Education guide for discussing the Sept. 11 anniversary with their students. Teachers were told to "talk to students about how they were feeling, how to deal with the tragedy -- [and] to help make them feel safe," Metts said.

While Iqbal clearly violated those instructions, Metts termed it a "misunderstanding." She advised Tyler to have Iqbal write an account of what happened, and she suggested that the principal send a letter to all parents.

Interviews with some parents and school officials portrayed this scene inside Iqbal's classroom on the Sept. 11 anniversary:

The 33-year-old teacher, who is of Pakistani heritage, asked students for their thoughts on the terrorist attacks. Several children said they believed the United States had been targeted because it is a "powerful country" and some countries "don't like us." Iqbal then related a theory, which she said she heard on television, that the United States sent airplanes into the World Trade Center to provoke hatred of its enemies in the Middle East.

One parent of a child in the class said her son was so upset by the conversation that "he was still talking about it after 11 p.m., when he should have been in bed."

The child told his parents that Iqbal apologized for her remarks Thursday but reiterated that students "should not always believe what they are told."

Prince George's school board member Judy Mickens-Murray said she was satisfied with the way Metts and Tyler handled the parents' complaints. "I talked to the principal. I support the administration," she said. "It is possible that it was taken out of context. I'm going to support the word of the principal until I'm given a reason not to."

But Howard Tutman, president of the County Council of PTAs, said that conspiracy theories about the United States government should not have been discussed with young children on the anniversary of a national tragedy.

"I would want teachers to give a balanced view, but . . . there's no evidence that the government had anything to do with those attacks," he said. "Especially with elementary school and middle school students, especially on that day, this tragedy should not have been discussed this way."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


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