Muslim student reports discrimination by nursing instructor

According to a report from UConn’s Office of Institutional Equity, a professor was accused of targeting a female Muslim student for religious practices. (File photo/The Daily Campus)

A professor in the University of Connecticut’s School of Nursing was accused of targeting a female Muslim student for religious practices and putting her under enhanced scrutiny, according to the student, who wished to remain anonymous for personal reasons.

“As an unapologetic Palestinian Muslim woman who wears hijab, I have gone my whole life being systematically silenced; silenced by white supremacy, Islamophobia, even Muslim institutions designed to protect me. But I refuse to be silenced,” the student said.

The student alleges that while she was completing her clinical assignment at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital last spring, she asked her clinical instructor, Assistant Clinical Professor Dr. Shirley Sargent, if she could arrive five minutes late so she could complete her morning prayers, according to a report from UConn’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE).

On the second day the student arrived late, Sargent said she was going to write the student up for violating the professionalism rules of the clinical. The student and Sargent then agreed that the student could arrive early and complete her prayers at the hospital, according to the OIE report.

In February, Sargent said she was concerned the student’s prayers would interfere with her ability to care for patients since she had to leave the floor to go to the hospital chapel.

The OIE investigators concluded “it is more likely than not that Dr. Sargent informed the Complainant that she was concerned the Complainant’s prayer schedule could affect patient safety.”

“What about the breaks to the bathroom, to the break room, to the end of the hallway for phone calls that she and other students would make?” the student said. “I do not think it would be fair to ever conclude that [my prayer] posed a threat to patient safety.”

The report also says Sargent said the hijab the student wore was a safety concern. She said the student may need to put a stethoscope in her ears quickly in an emergency. The student said she would be able to remove the headscarf quickly to put the stethoscope on. Sargent denied having this concern. Sargent said she has had students who wore hijabs before and she had no concerns about their attire interfering with their ability to work, according to the OIE report. The investigators from the OIE determined “it cannot be said to be more likely than not that the Respondent said Complainant’s headscarf was a safety concern.”

There was an incident in April 2017, when one of the student’s patients asked her where she was from. When the student said she was from Palestine, the patient said that the student’s family had “killed Israelis” and that he “used to send money to have people like her killed” and called the student a “terrorist,” according to the report.  

“I am traumatized and triggered by these experiences to this day. His words echo in my head, and the institution’s lack of protection or even care still scare and anger me,” the student said.

Sargent was present for this situation, the student said. The student said she discussed the incident with Sargent later and Sargent responded that if the student wanted to be a nurse, she would have to learn to work with patients who have different viewpoints, according to the student. Sargent said she was not present for an incident during which the student was called a terrorist, according to the report. The OIE investigators could not corroborate this story with other witnesses.

Sargent expressed concerns about the student’s “non-verbal” behavior, according to the report.

“She stated that I was introverted, and that I needed to ‘liberate’ myself,” the student said. “This was the exact moment when I realized that there was no point in arguing with a racist. I lost hope. A part of me had broken.”

Sargent contacted the student’s lab instructor, Lydia Lee-Villarreal, to discuss her concerns about the student. Villarreal said the student was quiet and that there may be “cultural reasons” for her demeanor. Villarreal commented at one meeting that the student came into the room like Eeyore, the sulky donkey from “Winnie the Pooh,” according to the report.

The student said after Sargent spoke to Villarreal, Villarreal’s attitude toward her changed and she became more critical of the student’s performance.

The student said Sargent treated her differently when instructing her during the course. The student said Sargent explained information to other students when they did not know it but when the she didn’t know something, the student said Sargent would say, “You should know this.” Sargent denied this discrepancy in treatment, according to the report.

The student also said other students had the opportunity to visit parts of the hospital that she did not. Sargent said students who worked in those areas had to perform tasks she was not confident in the student’s ability to complete.

The student also said Sargent expected her to know information about medications that Sargent had not taught her.

The report states the student indicated that there were times throughout the semester when Sargent praised her for doing well at certain things.

However, the student received a D for the clinical portion of the course and a B on her final care plan. She received an average of 70.94 percent but needed a 73 percent to pass, meaning she failed the course.

The OIE’s report did not find Sargent subjected the student to unfair scrutiny and criticism. The report also did not find the student was subject to discrimination.

“The factual findings set forth above do not demonstrate a causal connection between the Complainant’s religion or ethnicity and these adverse actions, as the evidence does not establish that the Complainant was treated less favorably than other students due to her religion or ethnicity,” the report said.

The OIE did not find Sargent violated any UConn policies. When asked to speak on this issue, Sargent told The Daily Campus she had no comment.

“After a careful review of the accounts provided by the parties, OIE concludes that the totality of the circumstances supports a finding that Dr. Sargent did not violate the University’s Policy Against Discrimination, Harassment and Related Interpersonal Violence or Non-Retaliation Policy.”


Anna Zarra Aldrich is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at anna.aldrich@uconn.edu. She tweets @ZarraAnna.