The mayor of Wilmington, Delaware, has apologized to a local Islamic school after a group of Muslim children wearing shirts, shorts and hijabs were pressured to leave a public pool.
Mayor Mike Purzycki admitted in a statement Saturday that city officials at the Foster Brown public pool “used poor judgment” in response to the students’ religious clothing requirements.
“We should be held accountable for what happened and how poorly we assessed this incident,” he said. “I apologize to the children who were directed to leave a city pool because of the religious-required clothing they were wearing.”
The statement was a reversal of the officials’ initial reaction, which was to speak of unspecified city policies about bathing suit requirements.
In his apology, Purzycki said that the city “referred to vaguely-worded pool policies to assess and then justify our poor judgement, and that was also wrong.”
The children are part of a summer Arabic enrichment program run by the Darul-Amaanah Academy, a local Islamic school. For the past four years, students in the program have visited the Foster Brown pool.
Camp director Tahsiyn Ismaa’eel told HuffPost that some girls in the program prefer to wear T-shirts and leggings in the pool. Some also cover their hair with headscarves while swimming. The students’ pool attire conforms with their families’ interpretation of Islamic rules about modest clothing.
Ismaa’eel said she didn’t have any issues with pool management before. But on June 25, the first day of camp this year, facility managers reportedly had a negative reaction to the clothes that the kids wore in the pool.
She said the pool manager repeatedly told camp leaders that cotton clothing was not allowed in the pool. She said staffers at the pool asked her when she was going to leave.
Ismaa’eel said she eventually decided to pull the kids out of the pool.
“If you are making us so uncomfortable that we aren’t enjoying a public facility, if you’re pressuring us by asking what time we’re going to leave ... I got the message,” she said.
Ismaa’eel reached out to Wilmington’s parks and recreation department about the episode. Despite receiving assurance from the department that her kids could wear religious attire in the public pool, she said, she was harassed about the swimwear policy on three other occasions.
She said no rule prohibiting cotton clothing is posted at the facility. She added that she believes management enforced regulations in a way that discriminated against her students.
“The bottom line is, if you have a policy, it has to be written, posted and applied across the board ― not arbitrarily,” she said.
City officials initially told The Delaware News Journal that the cotton ban is a safety issue, since cotton becomes heavy when wet and could strain the pool’s filtration system.
Ismaa’eel said she believes pool management used the lack of clarity about the rules to target her students.
“What happened at Brown pool, from my estimation, is that [the pool manager] weaponized an unwritten policy to target us and to try to keep us out of the pool, to antagonize us and get us banned from the pool,” she said.
The city now plans to place signage around its public pools to clearly communicate that swimmers must wear proper swimwear made of nylon, spandex or polyester and refrain from wearing cotton or wool.
For Ismaa’eel, that change may be too little, too late. She said she appreciated the mayor’s apology but believes many of her students may not be able to comply with a rule against cotton. Most come from poor families, she said, and can’t afford expensive swimsuits made to comply with Islamic modesty requirements.
“Most folks will try to make do with what they have,” she said, which is usually T-shirts and leggings.
She added that the atmosphere at the Foster Brown pool has gotten so hostile that she is considering taking her kids to other local swimming pools, like the YWCA’s.
Perhaps most heartbreaking for Ismaa’eel is that her students seem to be hurt by what’s happening.
“My campers are observing all of this, and they’re being picked on,” she said.
She said it’s important for the children enrolled in her summer camp ― especially the special-needs kids ― to get an opportunity to play in the pool just like kids from other communities in the neighborhood.
“It’s so important. It’s part of your summer experience. Kids love to go to the pool,” she said. “Our special-needs kids especially, they enjoy the water. This is therapeutic for them.”