During a special board meeting held Dec. 22, members of the District 200 school board apologized to Oak Park resident Dima Ali and formally denounced comments made by D200 board member Matt Baron that many community members said caused harm to Ali and other Muslim and non-white Oak Parkers.
The controversy dates to a comment written by Ali in November under a Wednesday Journal news article about Oak Park Trustee Dan Moroney, which was posted to Facebook. In her comment, Ali called Moroney a white supremacist.
Baron, who knows Moroney, contacted Wednesday Journal and urged the paper to remove the Facebook comment before submitting an opinion piece to the paper in which he compared Ali’s comment to someone leaving duffle bags in public places — code for terrorism. Ali is Muslim, a fact that Baron subsequently said he did not know at the time he wrote the piece.
Baron issued a written apology roughly a week later, calling his analogy “far too intense” and “needlessly over-the-top as I sought to stir people in this community to push back on unfair character attacks.”
During brief comments made at a Dec. 3 Committee of the Whole meeting, Baron said his metaphor was “intended to provoke bystanders like those who click like or love in response to the white supremacist label,” before doubling down on what he called his “key point — let’s stop the racial identity politics.”
In her remarks made during the Dec. 22 special meeting, Ali said she was disappointed by the board’s delayed response to Baron’s comments and called for his resignation.
“An Islamophobic board member should not be sitting right now like this,” she said, adding that she felt the board failed its marginalized students and community members by not condemning Baron’s remarks more swiftly.
“We’re not terrorists,” said Ali, who is also an Oak Park and River Forest High School parent. “We are your neighbors. … We’re your friends. In this community, we don’t drop suspicious duffel bags, we drop off bags full of donations. We drop off food, soup to any sick friend and community member.”
After Ali’s remarks, D200 board President Sara Dixon Spivy read a statement on behalf of the board majority that “formally denounced” Baron’s opinion piece, adding that Baron also “failed to recognize the impact and harm” of his opinion piece in his subsequent board comments.
The board said Baron’s “racist and Islamophobic remarks directly conflict with this board’s belief in racial equity and inclusion,” adding that they have also “undermined ongoing efforts” made by the district to advance its mission of improving equity and inclusion, and creating a “culture of warmth” for all OPRF students and community members.
The board also called Baron’s actions “conduct unbecoming of a board member,” but stopped short of calling for his resignation.
Baron, a first term D200 board member elected to the board in 2017, will not seek re-election. He was present at the Dec. 22 special meeting, but remained silent while his board colleagues apologized to Ali for their sluggish response and expressed their frustration, anger and disappointment. The board’s formal statement happened roughly a month after Baron’s opinion piece was published.
“Our board has a commitment to the actions that would tear away and break down institutionalized racism, which all of these little insidious things feed into, which are completely and totally unacceptable,” said member Gina Harris.
“As a board member, as a member of this community, as a Black woman, as a mother of four children who have lived in this community and gone to this school, I share your pain, and I appreciate finally being given an opportunity as a board to express our outrage because it is here and should not be denied,” said member Jackie Moore.
Board members said the delayed reaction was, in part, due to legal restrictions on how government boards can meet, brought about by the Open Meetings Act, as well as complications related to the pandemic. All D200 board meetings since March have been held virtually.
Board member Ralph Martire said the legal requirement delayed the board’s response “and probably extended the harm” done to Ali and other community members by Baron’s comments, but “we support your statements and we support you,” Martire told Ali.
Tamer Abouzeid, with the Council on American Islamic Relations – Chicago, was also present at the Dec. 22 special meeting.
“There have been harms done and we will have to take actions,” Abouzeid said, before extending an invitation for OPRF to utilize his organization’s resources to make the high school more inclusive, especially for Muslim students.
“This has been the lowest month as a board member that I’ve ever experienced,” said Spivy. “We’ve had some bad times, but nothing compares to this.”