Bullying a problem for Muslims, Arabs, and other minorities in American schools

Bullying a problem for Muslims, Arabs, and other minorities in American schools

by Sheila Musaji

Today, (April 2011) MPAC issued this press release about bullying of American Muslim students in schools:

Last weekend, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) held a community town hall forum to address the rise of bullying against young Muslim Americans, which have increased in frequency. Many young people in schools are facing emotional and physical abused being called “terrorists” or told “to go home” on a daily basis. When hate speech is not taken seriously, it has the potential to turn violent.

The recent news that an 8-year-old boy was found hanging from a bathroom hook at his school in Louisville, KY, has shocked a whole community and school officials. The son of Somali immigrant parents, the boy was found unconscious and hospitalized with serious injuries, yet it took three weeks for his story to reach national headlines. The sad truth was that the boy had been experiencing chronic bullying, which was not addressed by the school.

The reality is that when irresponsible public officials and political pundits engage in hate speech it has real consequences on the ground. The rhetoric about the Muslim American community on talk radio, national news outlets and in many communities has become poisonous in nature.

Bullying of Muslim Americans is not limited to classrooms and playgrounds. Anti-Muslim sentiment has reared its ugly head over and over again. Consider the recent burning of a Quran by the fringe Pastor Terry Jones, the nationwide spike in anti-mosque sentiment, the recent wave of anti-shariah bills in more than a dozen states across the country, a Villa Park, CA, councilwoman’s call for violence against Muslim Americans and a recent case where a Muslim woman was refused service as a mattress store because the store manager considered her a national security threat.

Young people are the most vulnerable part of our society, and we must do whatever is needed to ensure that they feel safe and secure in our country’s schools. Bullying is not only a problem for young Muslim Americans; it affects millions of children who might be seen as different in the sight of peers and school communities.

In March, President Barack Obama held a conference on bullying to challenge the belief that bullying is a normal rite of passage for youth. He stressed that the federal government, educators, school administrators and communities all have to work together to put an end to bullying. Stopbullying.gov also was launched in order to provide resources for educators and communities on how to address bullying and keep our schools safe.

At the MPAC forum, Michael S. Hing from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights taught parents how to file a complaint if their children are being harassed based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability and age in violation of federal laws. Hing emphasized the importance of documentation and reporting bullying incidents within six months. Bullying happens when peers, administrators and parents ignore the signs. Parents must ensure that this epidemic is weeded out of the dark shadows of school hallways and brought to light so that it may be addressed

It is the responsibility of faith leaders, parents, educators, government and the community to work together in order to create platforms where there can be education to promote mutual acceptance and understanding.

This sort of bullying is not new, but does seem to be getting worse.  Not only Muslim, but also Arab, Jewish, and Sikh students have been bullied.  Students have been bullied for being gay, or different in any way from the majority of students. 

As Sabrina Holcomb notes

Debate team champion, Autena Torbati, lives by her words. So the day a debate teammate announced to the class he would have “liked Hitler better if had he killed all the Muslims, instead of Jews,” Autena’s blood ran cold. “Remember,” says the Oklahoma high school student, “the Holocaust started with words before ending in gas chambers.”

In Autena’s case, bullying has been confined to verbal taunts, threatening gestures, and an anti-Muslim opinion piece in the school newspaper. But for other Muslim students, verbal assaults have escalated into physical abuse, as anti-Islamic sentiment sweeps the nation. In Texas, a Muslim student was brutally beaten and thrown into a dumpster, while in Minnesota, Muslim girls were chased by classmates who shoved raw pork in their faces. Following relentless beatings from middle to high school, a Muslim Staten Island teen finally resigned from school.

Bullying is an equal-opportunity crisis, affecting students of every age, race, and creed. The dimension that makes the bullying of Muslim students particularly disturbing centers around the open prejudices and fears of adults, giving the green light to non-Muslim children that it’s okay— even patriotic—to discriminate. Muslim students report that an administrator at one school screamed at a 13-year old to remove her hijab (religious head scarf) until the girl broke down in tears. A guest speaker at another school handed out literature demonizing Islam in a social sciences class. When adults, especially educators, join in the bullying, it’s not only hurtful, say students, it’s a betrayal of trust. But educators have found that when just one caring adult supports a student, it can make a world of difference, creating a positive ripple effect that goes beyond one student and one classroom.

...  “Some teachers do a wonderful job of teaching acceptance to their students,” reports Saadia Khan, Civic Outreach Coordinator for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). Kahn is invited to classrooms about a dozen times a year to talk candidly with students about Islamic culture. “I encourage the students to ask no-holds-barred questions—whether they’re about terrorism versus jihad or women’s rights under Islam,” says Khan. It helps to dispel myths and stereotypes when I can give them accurate information.”

Khan cautions that “misinformation contributes to misconceptions about groups, which in turn, can lead to bullying.” To help counter the negative narratives, she says, schools should facilitate conversations among educators, organizations like MPAC, students, and parents. “We have to teach children it’s okay to have disagreements as long as you engage in respectful discussion, and educators can be responsible facilitators of these discussions,” says Khan, who believes that cultural awareness training for educators should be required by all school districts. Khan also proposes using social media as an educational tool to counter cyberbullying, “Students with blogs can tag each other on positive news items and YouTube clips. It’s a nuanced and cool mechanism for teaching students how to exercise free speech responsibly.”

Public school demographics are changing so quickly, say community activists, cultural misunderstandings are unavoidable. The harassment of Muslim students, for instance, is often fueled by multiple factors: language and race, as well as religion, can make students a target. Darker-skinned Somali students comprise 10 percent of the student population in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Mocked as “sand n-gers” and “camel jockeys,” they reportedly face more discrimination there than other Muslim youth. Still other students are discriminated against because of their perceived ethnicity or religion: many Sikh Americans, though not Muslim, are targets of anti-Muslim bias.

In October 2010, the New York Post reported that

They called him a “terrorist,” relentlessly taunted him and beat him so hard that he bled—all because he was a Muslim.

But this nightmare didn’t unfold in some seamy torture chamber in a far-off place—it happened in the hallways of a Staten Island middle school.

During the 2009-10 school year at Markham Intermediate, Kristian suffered nine months of abuse from callous classmates who ripped him for his religious beliefs.

As much as the taunting and teasing in the cafeteria and classroom hurt him, nothing was as painful as being kicked to the head and punched in the groin so hard he was left reeling.

A day after police arrested the four teenagers —  three are 14 and one is 15—who allegedly mocked his faith and rearranged his face, Kristian, 16, recounted the chilling campaign of psychological and physical torture unleashed by his tormentors.
“They punched me. They spit in my face. They tripped me on the floor. They kicked me with their feet and punched me,” he said, asking that his last name not be used. “And as they were kicking and laughing, they kept saying, ‘You f- - -ing terrorist, f- - -ing Muslim, you f- - -ing terrorist.’ ”

Once, after a blow to his groin, he saw blood in his urine.

The suspects were arrested Sunday and charged as juveniles with assault and aggravated harassment as a hate crime, according to police.

Kristian, who was born in the United States after his parents emigrated from Trinidad, said the juveniles told him, “You came here to burn our buildings down. People can’t get jobs because of you.”

In March of 2010, CAIR reported that

Muslim Students Harassed in Minnesota Public Schools

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) today called on the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to investigate and address reports of growing racial and religious tensions in Minnesota public schools.

CAIR-MN’s request for DOE intervention came following a series of anti-Muslim incidents reported to the civil rights organization by students across the state. Muslim students have allegedly been called “towel head” and other religious and racial slurs and faced harassment for their religious beliefs by other students and teachers. Some alleged incidents include:

Two students approached a group of Muslim high school girls and asked them if they would like some pork bacon. When the girls informed them that their religion prohibited pork, the students made disparaging remarks about their religion. A week later, the two students brought pork bacon to school and shoved it in the faces of Muslim students and chased after them when they tried to get away.

Students wrote racist essays for their English class and posted them on a class blog to harass Muslim students.

A bus driver left Muslim students waiting at a bus stop on several occasions, driving past them when she saw them and telling them: “Catch me if you can.”

A World History teacher made disparaging comments about Islam and Muslims in class.

A teacher, on several occasions, handed students a can of air freshener and instructed them to spray the room when Muslim students walked into class.

SEE: Somali Population, Cultural Tension Rising in St. Cloud http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/03/15/st-cloud-tensions
Tensions Mount at OHS http://www.owatonna.com/news.php?viewStory=111955

Yesterday, members of Minnesota’s Islamic community gathered at the State Capitol to discuss the civil and religious rights of Muslim students with legislators.

Students reported to CAIR-MN that school administrators have failed to effectively respond to the incidents and the harassing treatment often becomes worse after they report it. Students also reported that those who are targeted the most are Somali students with limited English proficiency because the perpetrators think that these students will be unable to communicate the incidents to administrators.

“It is clear that racial and religious tensions in the community have manifested in the schools and need to be addressed immediately,” said CAIR-MN Assistant Director of Civil Rights Zahra Aljabri. “Students of all faiths and backgrounds in Minnesota must have a learning environment free of racism and intolerance.”

Aljabri said the hostile school environment is affecting students academically and emotionally. She noted that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently pledged that his department is going to take a more active role in enforcing civil rights for students nationwide.

CAIR-MN is asking the U.S. Department of Education to investigate these incidents; aggressively implement racial and religious harassment policies and procedures; institute a zero-tolerance discrimination policy; discipline students, faculty and administrators who engage in bias-motivated behaviors; and provide peer mediation and diversity trainings to faculty and staff to create a safe community for learning and growing in Minnesota.

In April of 2009 The Reno Gazette-Journal reported that

Washoe County School District has agreed to pay $350,000 to a former North Valleys High School student to settle a harassment suit. The school district also agreed to establish new anti-discrimination policies. Jana Elhifny, an American-Egyptian, claimed when she was a freshman in 2003 she was called names and told “you are not one of us” and “leave or we will kill you” for wearing a hijab, a traditional hair covering worn by many Muslim women. When she appealed to school officials for help, according to the lawsuit, she was allegedly ignored or told that she should not wear the scarf. Elhifny’s friend, Stephanie Hart, who also went to the principal about the harassment, was allegedly told to “mind (her) own business” and “act like a good American.” The school district has also agreed to pay Hart $50,000 and help her get her General Equivalency Diploma. Robert Cox, the attorney representing the school district, denied officials did anything wrong but agreed to settle to save additional legal costs.

In 2003, Shadi Hamid reported

... In Erie, Pa., a 14-year-old Iraqi-American girl was allegedly beaten up by a classmate while onlookers chanted racist slurs. According to the young girl, students were yelling, “Kill the Muslim girl. Get her, that’s what she deserves.”

In another shocking incident at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School in Maryland, a substitute teacher reportedly told a Muslim student that he should “volunteer for the Iraqi army.”

In an Ohio school district, the New York Times reported that a teacher said that she saw the large number of Muslim students as a “virtual mission field.” She then went on to compare Islam to a disease, saying, “If I had the answer for cancer, what sort of a human would I be not to share it?”


5 teens attack, injure Muslim girl on school bus in Ann Arbor http://www.freep.com/article/20090909/NEWS06/90909093/1320/5-teens-attack—injure-Muslim-girl-on-school-bus 9/09

A substitute teacher was charged with disorderly conduct Monday after she allegedly lashed out at a group of Gaithersburg high school students for using words in Arabic while practicing a commemorative speech to mark the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.  2006   http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/12/AR2006091201401.html

A school in Hillsborough County, Florida, has disciplined a 24-year-old teacher for harassing and threatening a sixth-grader because his name is Islam.  http://www.infocusnews.net/content/view/1699/82/

Austin, Texas Arab-American Student Bullied in School http://www.rightsworkinggroup.org/content/arab-american-student-bullied-school

Bullying: Facts for Schools and Parents,  Andrea Cohn & Andrea Canter, Ph.D., NCSP National Association of School Psychologists http://www.nasponline.org/resources/factsheets/bullying_fs.aspx

Bullying in schools, Rana Sampson http://www.popcenter.org/problems/bullying/

Bullying targets the other, Engy Abdulkader http://wairwomen.wordpress.com/media-2/

Cal State student leader stabbed; hate crime alleged http://trueslant.com/saralibby/2010/04/20/cal-state-student-leader-stabbed-hate-crime-alleged/

Combating Anti-Muslim Bias http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/number-39-spring-2011/combating-anti-muslim-bias

Do not tolerate intolerance: Racism, Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: Issues for schools and teachers http://www.teachers.org.uk/node/805

Georgia State University student alleges she was harrassed by a senior faculty member because of her religion http://www.ajc.com/services/content/metro/stories/2009/07/01/gsu_resignation_muslim.html?cxtype=rss&cxsvc=7&cxcat=13 6/09

Incidents of Islamophobia http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/islamophobia_incidents/

JROTC student in Florida lies about Muslim student refusing to stand for the pledge of allegiance 2009 http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/muslim_student_refuses_to_stand_for_pledge_story_that_wasnt/

Mesquite Junior High School in Phoenix Arizona was put on lockdown after a student wrote a bomb threat and signed it with the name of a Muslim student 6/2007 http://www.kpho.com/news/13426932/detail.html

Muslim Student Assaulted At Beckendorff Jr. High, Racial Slurs Reportedly Used In Attack http://instantnewskaty.com/2010/02/05/11735

Muslim students suffer intimidation, harassment at school, Shadi Hamid http://www.progressive.org/media_1166
Muslim students art exhibit vandalized at Art Institute of Chicago.  In addition, large caricatures and a bubble with the words “Kill all Arabs” were highlighted on the exhibited artwork. Ironically, the exhibit was addressing the very rise of violence and hate directed at Muslims in the post 9/11 climate.  http://www.suntimes.com/news/24-7/2267968,CST-NWS-art13.article  5/10

Muslims In America: When Bullying Meets Religion, Sabrina Holcomb http://www.nea.org/home/42528.htm

Panama City school district fired a school bus driver accused of cursing and spitting at Muslim children. 7/2007 http://www.wtsp.com/news/local/story.aspx?storyid=59965

Safe and Caring Schools for Arab and Muslim Students: A Guide for Teachers http://www.sacsc.ca/PDF%20files/Resources/SACS%20for%20Arab%20and%20Muslim%20Students%20unbooked.pdf

Sikh Student Assaulted by Bully in High School in Queens 2008 http://www.realsikhism.com/index.php?subaction=showfull&id=1213023182&ucat=8  and another http://www.thesouthasiantimes.info/node/187

Sikh Students and Bias Incidents http://sikhism.about.com/od/sikhwomen/ss/Sikh_Student.htm

Sikh students: hatred in the hallways http://www.sikhcoalition.org/documents/hatred_in_the_hallways.pdf

Terrorized for being a Muslim http://tinyurl.com/28wt6gc
Vandalism at Muslim Center at Brandeis University http://www.boston.com/yourtown/news/waltham/2010/03/brandeis_probes_vandalism_at_m.html  3/10