It wasn’t until 2000 that the federal Department of Justice filed its first lawsuit in a peer-to-peer racial harassment case, said Kiran Ahuja, the attorney who filed that suit.
In the case, two black students attending a predominantly white high school in the Sullivan County school district in Tennessee complained about years of unchecked harassment. The harassment culminated in an incident where a classmate wrapped a chain around one black student’s neck and choked him, while another classmate wearing a KKK T-shirt looked on and yelled racial slurs.
The two black students found the school district indifferent to their complaints.
Ahuja, now director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders grew up in Savannah. Her own experiences helped her understand how challenging it can be to be a person of color in the U.S., she told conference attendees.
Eventually, the federal government reached a settlement with Sullivan County in which the school district agreed to compensate the students, hire an expert to evaluate its policies and procedures for preventing, identifying, and remedying harassment and discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin; conduct a school climate assessment, develop a plan to prevent, identify, and remedy harassment and discrimination, and provide an education and training program to inform and instruct teachers, staff, and students about the school district’s policies prohibiting harassment and discrimination.
Ahuja went on to note that the nation’s Asian community grew the most of any racial group over the last 10 years, increasing in size by almost 50 percent. The slurs she heard as a child, like “dot head,” “chink,” and “slant eyes,” have been joined by “towel head” and “cone head.” Anti-Muslim sentiment has surged since 9/11, she said, and despite Asians’ long history in the U.S., “we are still the new kids on the block.”
She recalled the settlement last year of a case at South Philadelphia High School where in 2009 about 30 Asian students were attacked and 13 were sent to emergency room. The attack followed months of other incidents at the school. And those were the ones the school new about. Among some Asians, there is sharp resistance to reporting harassment or bullying, she said.
And for Sikh and Muslim students, “bullying is the rule, not the exception,” said Amardeep Singh, who serves on Ahuja’s commission.
He shared the story of Jagmohan Singh Premi, who was punched in the face by a fellow student who was gripping a key between his knuckles. Although steps have been taken to address the problems at the school, Singh said the principal’s initial reaction was that the student, who wears a turban, “has had some issues with ‘that ball’ on his head.”
After Ahuja and Singh spoke, several students from across the country shared their own stories of harassment and threats, some of which they continue to live with. Among them were a beauty queen, a Native American girl, a girl with an illness, and a Vietnamese student.
Next month, Ahuja will be a part of a bullying prevention summit in New York that will focus on Asians and Muslims.
“This is a place to start asking the really hard questions,” Ahuja said to the crowd. “Not just how do we deal with it. If we think about truly eradicating [bullying], what has to happen?”
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.