An Arkansas high school principal said on Friday that an anti-Muslim photo shared on his Facebook page was “a huge misunderstanding” but didn’t explain further as national advocates condemned the message and the school district affirmed its commitment to religious diversity.
Facebook users captured a shared post on White Hall Principal Mark Jelks' page that reads “Kick Islam out of America” and depicts a silhouette of a person kicking a star and crescent, an iconic symbol of the religion.
"You can’t walk with God holding hands with the devil," the image said.
The post was apparently shared on Sunday to Jelks' page from a hyper-partisan page called "America Dying," which includes posts critical of Islam.
The school district issued a statement Thursday that stopped short of addressing the post directly. Officials said the district “is absolutely committed to being an inclusive, respectful, non-discriminatory environment that places the student first.”
“We do not support or endorse statements to the contrary,” their statement read.
Jelks said by phone Friday morning that the post was “a big misunderstanding … A huge misunderstanding.”
“It offended a lot of people I had no intention of hurting,” he said.
Jelks declined to say how the post ended up on his Facebook page and said he planned to detail what happened later in the day after talking to his attorney.
He didn’t return a phone call later in the day. Jelks' Facebook page no longer appeared on the social media site.
It wasn’t clear if the principal worked at the school on Friday.
The district declined to comment citing a “personnel matter” and pointed to its previous statement.
Students at the high school called for an apology after seeing screenshots of the post that were widely shared in recent days.
“I want to see consequences,” said White Hall sophomore Muhammad Qasim, adding that many of his classmates were angry about the post. “A majority of the school is shocked.”
The 16-year-old said he stayed home from school Friday for personal concerns following news of the principal’s post.
Teachers and other staff at the nearly 900-student school have been quiet about it since word of the post circulated around the school community, Qasim said.
Sophomore Arif Islam, 16, said while he was disappointed after seeing the post, he felt the principal should apologize “not just to Muslims, but to everybody” at the school and then move past the alleged indiscretion.
“People make bad decisions,” he said. “I wouldn’t call him a bad person”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations meanwhile said it filed a complaint with the Arkansas Department of Education, asking the agency to investigate the post and Jelks.
In a letter sent to the state, the group called for an investigation into whether Jelks held any previous bias toward Muslims, a public apology and sensitivity training.
"While we support First Amendment rights to share opinions on a private page ... it raises concerns for the Arkansas Muslim community to have a person of authority in a public school setting sharing blatantly Islamophobic memes," the letter said.
CAIR’s Oklahoma Executive Director Adam Soltani said imagery found in the post and images like the one shared can provoke violence, pointing to the deadly attack on two New Zealand mosques where nearly 50 people were killed and dozens injured.
“The promotion of such bigoted and Islamophobic rhetoric indicates an outlook that is inconsistent with meeting the needs of a diverse student population,” Soltani said.
State ethics guidelines require teachers and other educators to maintain “a professional relationship with each student, both in and outside the classroom.”
The state can censure educators in several ways, including revocation of their teaching licenses.
A Department of Education spokeswoman said she couldn’t confirm whether the agency received a complaint or if it has launched an investigation, citing the agency’s rules.
But if there are to be consequences for his principal, Islam said he doesn’t feel they should be severe.
“I hope he doesn’t do the same thing again. I hope nobody anywhere does,” he said.