TOMS RIVER, N.J. – A school board member in New Jersey said he will not “apologize or resign” from the board after an often-chaotic school board meeting Wednesday at which more than a dozen speakers chastised him for sharing posts disparaging Muslims on his personal Facebook page.
The Facebook posts shared by Dan Leonard, a Toms River Board of Education member, on his personal page include the comment, “my life would be complete if she/they die,” which Leonard wrote above a photograph of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat and Muslim from Michigan.
The comment was above a link to a Fox News article about Tlaib calling for a hunger strike in response to U.S. Customs & Immigration Enforcement’s treatment of immigrants at the U.S. border.
“If you’re a board member, you are supposed to protect the interests of everyone, all of the school members, the students, the staff,” said Wesam Berjaoui, a Muslim who is a member of the East Brunswick school board. “And by your actions of hate, that is disgusting.”
Toms River resident Amanda Barton, a former teacher, pointed out that faculty members in the district are warned against making inflammatory social media posts, even on their own personal accounts, and probably would have been fired for sharing memes or making posts like Leonard’s.
“I don’t really know how a board member is held to a different standard than the teachers,” she said.
Social media post: School board member longs for Muslim congresswoman’s death in post: ‘My life would be complete’
Many of the speakers questioned how Leonard can serve a school system that is becoming increasingly diverse after sharing divisive memes and making inflammatory statements on social media.
But Leonard refused to back down during Wednesday’s meeting. He frequently interrupted speakers who called his Facebook posts bigoted and hateful, attempting to justify at least one of his posts by saying he opposes “Sharia Law” and not Muslims, drawing jeers from the crowd.
Board of Education President Joseph Nardini banged his gavel in a sometimes fruitless effort to get Leonard to stop speaking.
Defending the Tlaib post, Leonard said, “the congresswoman is trying to shut down a federal agency of the government, right, so my point was, ‘let her starve.’ And I say it again, how is that offensive to Muslims. Just because she’s Muslim?”
Board Attorney Melanie Szuba Appleby advised the board not to allow “these personal conversations” between Leonard and audience members.
Wednesday night’s board meeting came a day after the New Jersey Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NJ) called for Leonard to resign for sharing “racist and Islamophobic posts” on his Facebook account.
With the board meeting already underway, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and Gov. Phil Murphy joined the chorus of public officials calling on Leonard to resign.
“We are disheartened by the racist comments made by a school board member in Toms River,” Oliver wrote in a post on her official Facebook page. “His hateful language is counter to the best interests of our students and does not represent our values. Governor Phil Murphy and I urge him to resign. The New Jersey Department of Education is also looking into this matter.”
Leonard’s Facebook posts also have drawn the ire of Muslim Advocates, a Washington, D.C.-based national advocacy group, which called for his resignation or removal from both the school board and his position as Ocean County delegate to the New Jersey School Boards Association.
In a prepared statement issued Wednesday, Muslim Advocates Special Counsel for Anti-Muslim Bigotry Madihha Ahussain said, “No individual who is responsible for governing the education of children should ever engage in hate speech, bigoted conspiracy theories and violent, anti-Muslim rhetoric on social media. The harmful, ugly content that Daniel Patrick Leonard regularly posts to Facebook exposes him as someone wholly unfit to work with the diverse school children in Toms River and the state of New Jersey.”
In addition to the post about Tlaib, CAIR-NJ highlighted two other posts from Leonard’s “D.P. Leonard” Facebook page in calling for his resignation. One features a photo of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. –who is also a Muslim – with the comment, “Terrorist….100 percent.”
The third post is an image of a bruised Barbie doll in a head scarf. “Sharia Barbie, Comes with Jihab [sic], bruises, & Quran, Stoning accessories available for additional purchase. “Jihab,” CAIR-NJ notes, is an apparent reference to the Islamic head scarf, actually known as a “hijab.” All three of the posts are from April and were sent to CAIR-NJ by an anonymous Toms River resident.
Several speakers who called for Leonard’s resignation expressed frustration that the board had not taken action or spoken out more forcefully against Leonard’s Facebook posts.
Board President Nardini again stressed that Leonard’s posts are on his personal page and stressed that the board does not condone “incivility” by anyone.
Leonard, 42, who represents Beachwood on the nine-member regional board, was elected to a three-year term in 2016. He is seeking re-election this year.
Early this morning, Leonard wrote on his Team Leonard Facebook campaign page that he had met with representatives of CAIR-NJ and other “Muslim members of the community.”
“Although I will not apologize or resign over the mischaracterization of my “out of context posts” – we did agree to disagree and I did reassure them that I understand the position that some of them felt the need to take,” Leonard wrote. “Sadly, my personal posts have obviously impacted the district and I will be more cautious going forward as we continue our fight against the Loss in State Aid – right or wrong, not everything is NOT about me and my colleagues an I have worked way too hard to let this ruin our path to progress!”