SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator of public schools in South Portland, Maine, has resigned and left the state, saying he fears for his family's safety after receiving a threatening letter from a white supremacist.
The attack on Mohammed Albehadli, who came to the U.S. a decade ago from Iraq after it became too dangerous, comes at a time when many Republicans are opposed to DEI initiatives that include recruiting and retaining faculty and students of color.
Albehadli said he knows from experience in Iraq how threats can escalate: “You hear something first. And the next thing, an action follows.”
He decided not to wait to find out what the action might be.
The Dec. 29 letter, released to The Associated Press under a freedom of information request, contains racist epithets and indicates the New England White Network told Albehadli that he should “go back to the Middle East where you belong."
Superintendent Timothy Matheney described the letter as the “most vile email message I have seen in my 35 years in education.”
Albehadli, who announced his resignation a week ago, was “an exemplary staff member” who was making a “positive impact” on city schools, Matheney said.
“Because we deeply value the diversity of our students and staff members, this situation has saddened all of us who seek to ensure safe and welcoming schools. Nevertheless, we will continue to pursue diversity, equity and inclusion here because the importance of that work is even more evident and urgent to us now,” he said in a statement.
South Portland Police Chief Dan Ahern said a school resource officer and detectives are investigating and consulting with state and county prosecutors to determine if a crime was committed.
Similar emails from the same sender have gone to other people of color — including Portland, Maine, city councilors Victoria Pelletier and Pious Ali, who recently ran for mayor. In 2022, an email to state Rep. Charlotte DiLorenzo in New Hampshire was investigated by the state attorney general's office. Recently, another email to a mayor in New Hampshire called the mayor's gay son an “abomination.”
“Quite honestly, these attacks take a toll. How could they not?” Ali wrote in a statement about the incident. But Ali vowed that he wouldn’t be intimidated and urged people to come together to stand up against racism.
The emails' sender, Ryan Murdough, the New Hampshire founder of the New England White Network, is active on Gab, a social networking website popular with white nationalists, where he said that he has received a no-trespass notice for school property in South Portland along with a police officer's warning that hate speech can be viewed as a threat.
“Honestly, I don’t care about Mohammed,” Murdough told The Associated Press in an email. Murdough claims that by targeting diversity efforts, he's speaking up for white families.
Murdough has been involved in other white supremacist groups and launched the New England White Network in 2022, and ran unsuccessfully for a New Hampshire legislative seat in 2010, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Albehadli, who holds degrees from Trinity College and Boston University and already has left Maine, said he understands that Murdough has free speech rights. Still, he said, there should be penalties for crossing a line and making him feel unsafe, and for causing him to uproot his family, flee a state he loves and start from scratch in a new job.
He said he loved Maine, where he lived for six years, and didn't want to leave the state.
“If he feels smart to walk a fine line on the law, if he's able to navigate the system and say whatever he can say, then I'm sort of losing faith,” Albehadli said. "There should be legal consequences"."