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Wheatley graduate harassed over commencement speech, advocate says

The Wheatley School in Old Westbury.

The Wheatley School in Old Westbury. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

An Old Westbury high school student said she was told to "go back to Pakistan" by some attendees at her graduation ceremony after delivering a speech instructing classmates to educate themselves about the "ethnic cleansings of Palestinians."

As Huda Ayaz, 17, who is Muslim and of Pakistani descent, lined up to receive her diploma Sunday from The Wheatley School, some attendees chanted "we support Israel," said Ahmed Mohamed, legal director for the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Someone from the audience told Ayaz, who was wearing a hijab, a religious head covering, to "go back to Pakistan," Mohamed said.

Another was caught on video asking "what about Hamas?," referencing the Palestinian militant group. School security removed one man who had aggressively confronted Ayaz and her family, Mohamed said.

In a statement, Wheatley principal Sean Feeney told Newsday that Ayaz diverted from the original speech submitted for approval to the school's selection committee. In emails to parents, Feeney and East Williston district superintendent Elaine Kanas blamed Ayaz for expressing what Feeney said were "inappropriate" personal comments.

"I apologize that such a wonderful ceremony became marred for many people in attendance due to those remarks," Feeney wrote in an email.

After getting the committee's OK on the script and being told she could make changes before final submission, Mohamed said, Ayaz added portions about the conflict in the Middle East and then turned it into Feeney.

Feeney said in his statement that he did not read the final version of the speech but nevertheless he added that Ayaz chose the wrong forum to give it.

"A high school graduation ceremony, solely intended to acknowledge and celebrate the milestone achievements of the graduating class, was not the appropriate venue to express any political statements," the principal said.

According to Mohamed, final approval was understood to mean after Ayaz submitted the speech to Feeney on Friday night.

On the WhatsApp messaging service, Ayaz wrote that the version of the speech she gave to Feeney was the one "I read at the graduation. When he responded to my email of the final draft that afternoon, I assumed he had read it and approved of it.

Ayaz, Feeney and Kanas all declined interview requests Thursday.

The school added a disclaimer that appears in a YouTube stream of the graduation ceremony stipulating some content in the speech was not approved. Ayaz's speech is included in the streamed ceremony but comments by attendees directed at her appear to be off camera.

Ayaz was among two students selected by the school to deliver commencement addresses.

In her speech, Ayaz told the crowd to "educate yourself about international dilemmas, including the ethnic cleansings of Palestinians and Uyghur Muslims. Families are continuously torn apart and real human lives are being lost but ignored."

The line did not provoke an immediate reaction from the crowd, but according to Mohamed, Ayaz said she was jeered by attendees as she prepared to receive her diploma.

The stress from the incident forced Ayaz to seek medical assistance at a hospital, Mohamed said. Ayaz's father is also seeking treatment for anxiety and stress because of fears for his family’s safety, Mohamed added.

CAIR officials, who met with Feeney on Tuesday, are demanding a public apology.

"Dr. Feeney is not entitled to create a target on a student’s back," Mohamed said. "Shortly after the ceremony, he apologized to Huda and accepted all the blame because he realized it was his mistake. Only after he received pressure did he buckle and contrive this excuse to shift the blame onto a student."

In his statement to Newsday, Feeney appeared to reference the behavior of attendees at the graduation.

"As adults who are role models for our children, it is equally important that our actions toward others, including those with whom we disagree and especially the youngest members of our community, must always be respectful and reflect the beliefs that are the hallmark of our schools and our community," he said.

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