A Richmond Hill teacher is under investigation by the York Region District School Board after a Twitter account featuring his photo posted messages accused of being "racist" and Islamophobic.
More than five students at Richmond Green Secondary School uncovered an account, @firstatheist, they claim belongs to English teacher Michael Marshall, who authors @marshallisaboss, an account where he publicly identifies himself.
"Decided that I am way too racist to be a teacher #theycantbreathe" read one tweet from @firstatheist, which was deactivated some time between Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
"I get sad when girls I teach decide to wear the hijab. I feel like a failure," another tweet said. In that conversation, students claim on Twitter that Marshall identified one of his students by first name.
"And I thought I would be able to start wearing hijab in a school as welcoming as mine... Guess not," the student mentioned by @firstatheist responded.
The account had sent about 4,649 tweets by the time it was deactivated, according to screenshots posted on Twitter and sent to the Star. Students claim to have identified their teacher from profile pictures, information in the biography matching a description of Marshall and a blog post on Weebly dated Aug. 25, 2014, in which the author self-identifies as a 30-year-old atheist teacher in Toronto who runs a Gay-Straight Alliance group. Marshall supervises a GSA club and a slam team, a spoken word and poetry society.
Marshall did not respond to the Star at his home address or to phone calls, emails and Twitter messages. The @marshallisaboss account has only responded to the allegations by tweeting "???" to student Nasim Asgari.
One pupil, who did not want to be named, said the teacher had started marking more harshly this year and did not believe the contentious Twitter account belonged to Marshall. Other past and present students on Twitter agreed that they did not think Marshall made the account.
YRDSB spokesperson Licinio Miguelo said, "There have been cases in the past where some of our employees have been impersonated."
A spokesperson for the school in Richmond Hill said an investigation is being conducted and this is a "very serious allegation," but could not give any further information on a personnel matter.
"To be honest, I'm hoping it's a hacked account," said Cecil Roach, YRDSB co-ordinating superintendent.
He added that he personally knows the teacher involved because of his association with the slam group. "We have a very diverse student population," he said. "One of the lead poets in the slam group is a hijab-wearing girl."
"It's very disturbing if true. We want our pupils to feel respected and safe. Those are not just words we use."
Asgari, 17, who was taught by Marshall as part of the slam team, said: "Some of my classmates discovered the account a few months ago. We just graduated, so a lot of people are feeling they're more able to speak up.
"I first saw it yesterday. I read it for a good half hour before it was deactivated."
Asgari said that she cannot recall a time Marshall was openly racist, but: "he told me before he has other accounts, and I remember him saying he argues with Muslim extremists on Twitter.
"There were times he would make jokes, but to me they were jokes. They were political and about how he didn't believe in God.
"They were little remarks, and I always thought he was joking because I looked up to him as a teacher."
Some of the anti-Muslim tweets that pupils found and objected to include:
- "Just have a trailer full of guns roll down the street and arm the ghetto. Oh wait that's black ppl."
- "Kinda have this perverse urge to wear a hijab for a day and twerk in the street."
- "There is an absolute s***-ton of Muslims at Ikea tonight. Any special occasion?"
- "I'm sorry but sharia law is incompatible with my democratic secular nation. You can have it, but keep it over there in backward land."
Roach added that "you never know what's in people's hearts" but that as a teacher using social media, someone would have to be "pretty daft" to use their own picture on a supposedly secret account.
As the school's founding principal, Roach said, "this one hits me hard." He attended graduation ceremonies at the school Tuesday and said, "there was a lot of joy in that room" and a "lot of kids of the Muslim faith."
"For this to happen just after that, it's very disappointing."
The YRDSB tweeted "we take concerns about racist tweets very seriously and are investigating. Thanks for supporting equity in our schools."
Asgari says she was called into school Thursday, two days after she graduated, to discuss the allegations with the principal and vice-principal, who asked if Asgari was OK, and if she had any more information about the tweets. They reassured her they are investigating and documenting the allegations.
Asgari continued: "It's a matter of trust. How do we know who's teaching children? We're taught to trust authority figures who we think have our best interests at heart. We spend more time at school than at home, more time with our teachers than parents."
The only message @marshallisaboss, Marshall's non-contentious Twitter account, has included referencing Muslims quotes an article saying that Valentine's Day is a threat to Muslim values, to which he responds "really? No rose for you ... do we agree with this?"
No other messages on that account appear to show any signs of anti-Muslim bias.
In 2010, a teacher at Woodbridge College named Mike Marshall was given an "Unsung Hero" award by the Educational Services Committee of District 16. Marshall was a teacher at the school at that time, where his score on the website ratemyteachers.com was an impressive 4.7 out of 5 stars.
At his current school, his rating is a still high score of 3.7. More than 30 reviews rate Marshall positively, with students appearing to claim he is an "amazing teacher" who is "very understanding" and goes "that extra mile." One review on the site from May 11 reads: "He is also very opinionated about controversial topics such as religion and often comes across as insensitive to others beliefs inappropriate for a classroom."
YRDSB spokesperson Miguelo said: "We take this matter seriously. After learning of the allegations yesterday, the school, along with support from board staff, has begun an investigation."
"This is a personnel matter, so we cannot go into detail, however be assured that we will conduct a thorough investigation, follow all protocols and policies and take any necessary measures.
He added that the investigation "wouldn't take a long period of time."
If the allegations prove true, Roach said, there would be "serious consequences."
Related Topics: Pressure Tactics Against Free Speech
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