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Students hoping to obtain their transcripts waited outside their Detroit charter school, Universal Academy, for more than an hour. Office workers inside would not unlock the door.

Students hoping to obtain their transcripts waited outside their Detroit charter school, Universal Academy, for more than an hour. Office workers inside would not unlock the door.

Koby Levin

Students fear repercussions from their Detroit charter school over viral graduation speeches

When top students used the graduation stage to air concerns about their Detroit charter school, they thought they were getting the last word. Now they’re not so sure.

The company says it has hired a lawyer to look into the speeches, leading the speakers to fear that they’ll face individual repercussions.

“I’m just waiting for them to stop coming back at us,” said Tuhfa Kasem, one of the two speakers. “We just want this to end. We’re just hoping for them to get better as a school.”

Meanwhile, some members of the 54-student senior class at Universal Academy are concerned because their school still hasn’t released final transcripts, which they need to enroll in college and collect scholarships. They believe it amounts to a retaliation by Hamadeh Educational Services, the company that manages their school, for critical graduation speeches that put it at the center of a social media tempest last month.

School officials, who deny claims of retaliation, sent a letter to parents on Friday saying that transcripts will be released next week. Students at other schools operated by the company say their official transcripts were sent as early as two weeks ago.

The letter to parents was sent after a group of students and parents went to the company’s Dearborn Heights headquarters on Friday to demand the transcripts. They were locked out, and someone inside the building called the police, who asked them to leave or risk being charged with trespassing.

“They care more about their reputation than how we do in college,” said Sarah Nasher, who plans to attend the University of Detroit Mercy. Nasher believes that the school is pushing back against a group of top students who have demanded improvements at Universal Academy, some of whom are working as student organizers for the education advocacy group 482Forward. 

“They’re a lot harder on us because we aren’t afraid and because people will pay attention to us,” said Nasher. She wasn’t one of the graduation speakers, but she was among those who went to the management company headquarters Friday.

Mario Morrow, a spokesman for Hamadeh Educational Services,  said the transcripts were still being calculated and that students would receive them by the end of next week. The students’ graduation ceremony was on May 30; their last day of school was May 17.

“When you’re at the end of the school year, you don’t have a full staff, so there’s limited personnel in the office to complete those tasks,” he said.

Morrow said the timing of the transcripts had nothing to do with the viral graduation speeches, which brought public criticism to the school and prompted a famed columnist to criticize the students for overly confrontational “gradu-shaming.”

Nawal Hamadeh, president of the management company, recently told the Arab-American News that “the incident is now under investigation by our lawyers.” Morrow confirmed that the company has hired a lawyer to review the graduation speeches, which raised alarms about the number of long-term substitutes employed by the school and decried what they called a culture of retaliation, pointing to the controversial firing of eight teachers in 2016.

Even students who didn’t give graduation speeches are worried that they’ll miss deadlines to submit their transcripts. Abdulrahman Al-Reyashi, who plans to attend Henry Ford Community College, said his financial aid could be at risk. On Wednesday, he received an email from the college warning him in bold font that this was his third notice about his transcripts, and that he needed to submit the document within two weeks “to ensure there is no interruption of your enrollment.”

He sees a direct link between that email and the controversial graduation speeches.

“The principal said they’re holding our transcripts up because of an investigation, but it’s freedom of speech,” said Al-Reyashi, who did not speak at graduation but says he agrees with the speakers’ criticisms. “They can’t hold up our education over that.”

On Friday, Al-Reyashi took time off from his job managing a pizza parlor and drove to the Hamadeh Educational Services headquarters. As he gathered outside with other students, a school official emerged to tell them that their transcripts would be sent out the following week.

Unsatisfied, the students and some of their parents tried to enter the building. It was locked, although workers inside were visible through the windows and the office wasn’t scheduled to close for another four hours.

A sergeant with the Dearborn Heights police became a liaison on Friday between students and their school superintendent.

A sergeant with the Dearborn Heights police became a liaison on Friday between students and their school superintendent.

Koby Levin

The crowd stayed by the front door for more than an hour. Frustrated, students rang the doorbell and knocked repeatedly, peering through the reflective glass and trying to snap photos of office workers inside. One student, Nasir Gooba made a speech to a security camera: “Y’all are grown men and women, y’all are hiding from kids, we just want our diplomas and transcripts.”

Inside the building, someone called the police, and two Dearborn Heights police cruisers pulled into the parking lot. Sgt. Jordan Dottor spoke with the students, then went inside. When he emerged, he said the students needed to stop knocking on the windows. But he stayed and listened, and before long, he connected the students to reports about the controversial graduation speeches.

“Which school is this? Is this the one that was on the news?” he asked.

After listening to the students for a few more minutes, Dottor went back inside, apparently to help answer some of their questions.

When he came out again, he told the students what they’d already heard: The transcripts would be released next week. He said he’d spoken with Hamadeh, who also told him that the students would need to leave or their school superintendent would ask the police to charge them with trespassing.

Hamadeh, Dottor told them, said students who would not be issued transcripts for any reason would be contacted directly.

Morrow said that no students would be denied transcripts.

But Kasem felt the statement was aimed at her.

“That’s me,” she said.