Teacher of the Year responds after airline investigation concluded no discrimination occurred in Huntsville incident

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(AP Photo/ Michael Ainsworth, File)

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WIAT) — American Samoa’s Teacher of the Year has spoken out after an American Airlines investigation concluded that an incident in the Huntsville airport last month was not the result of discrimination. 

The teacher, Sabrina Suluai-Mahuka, said Thursday that American Airlines reached out to her earlier in the week to share conclusions from their investigation of the incident, which was first reported by CBS 42. 

Suluai-Mahuka was departing Huntsville after a trip to Space Camp attended by other Teachers of the Year from across the country. She claims she was discriminated against when she and another Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) teacher were not given overnight accommodations following a flight cancellation. Another Teacher of the Year, however, a white male, did receive these accommodations. 

On Tuesday, Suluai-Mahuka was told by American Airlines that their internal review concluded that what occurred in Huntsville was not the result of discrimination. Instead, they said that the difference in treatment between Suluai-Mahuka and her white male colleague was an error by a staff member. 

“It appears that our Customer Service team incorrectly provided a hotel voucher to one customer traveling on AA 5113 (HSV-CLT) on July 26, which was canceled as a result of severe weather,” the airline told CBS 42 via email. “We recognize the confusion that may have caused, which is why American has provided reimbursement for Ms. Suluai-Mahuka’s hotel expenses and has offered her a trip credit.”

The airline also attached in their email to CBS 42 a statement celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January which outlines the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

For her part, Suluai-Mahuka said she was “extremely disappointed” by the airline’s response.

“As a teacher, I’m always telling my kids that if they do anything wrong, they can always redress it, correct it, and use it as a learning experience so they don’t repeat the behavior in the future,” she told CBS 42 Thursday.

That is not what American Airlines has done here, she said. 

Suluai-Mahuka has said that there were several issues with the airline’s investigation, which lasted just five days. American Airlines did not contact the other AAPI Teacher of the Year involved or their white male colleague, Ohio Teacher of the Year Anthony Coy-Gonzalez, during their inquiry, for example.

Suluai-Mahuka has said she “kindly but firmly” refused to accept American Airline’s voucher for a future flight.

“There is no monetary value that will ever compensate for the hurt I felt from this experience,” she said. 

The teacher has also posted a list of requests she would like the airline to address on social media, including allowing 2021 State Teachers of the Year to provide awareness training on explicit bias and meeting with the educators to follow up on policy reform. 

Teachers of the Year from well over half of U.S. states have signed a joint statement condemning American Airlines for their actions and expressing support for their fellow AAPI educators.

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