As public fears about terrorism hit their highest levels in a decade and anti-Islamic sentiment surges, schools should take extra steps to ensure that Muslim, immigrant, and refugee students feel safe and free from discrimination, the U.S. Department of Education said last week.
Schools are always obligated under federal civil rights laws to respond to harassment and bullying of all students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or national origin, the agency said in a “Dear Colleague” letter. But that obligation is especially important “at this time when fear and anger are heightened, and when public debate sometimes results in the dissemination of misinformation,” said the letter, signed by the department’s former secretary, Arne Duncan, and its acting secretary, John King.
That urging from federal officials comes as a recent Gallup poll shows that American concern about terrorism reached its highest point in 10 years after the mass shootings in Paris and in San Bernardino, Calif., which were both linked to Muslim extremism.
In the wake of those shootings, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed temporarily barring Muslims from traveling to the United States, and some lawmakers and political candidates supported a halt on the resettlement of refugees from Syria.
Civil rights groups, meanwhile, have been reporting heightened concerns from students and parents about school-based harassment of Muslim students and Sikh students, who are often misidentified as Muslim and faced similar harassment after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Kids are asking things like, ‘Is my friend Muhammad going to have to leave the country? Where do we get to go see him if he’s made to leave?’ ” said Jennifer Wicks, a lawyer who handles civil rights complaints for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. “Kids are, unfortunately, hearing that. That’s something that families and schools need to have a discussion about.”
Muslim and immigrant students may also feel singled out in classroom discussions about current events, Wicks said, or classmates may inadvertently put them in the position of defending all Muslims, which they may feel unprepared or unwilling to do.
And Muslim students often feel targeted by more deliberate harassment, sometimes even by teachers and other staff members, she said.
In a 2014 survey by CAIR California, the organization’s largest state office, 52 percent of responding Muslim middle and high school students reported being “verbally insulted or abused” because of their religion. And 29 percent of responding girls who wore hijabs reported offensive touching or pulling of their head coverings by classmates.
Students interviewed for the report said they don’t report bullying or harassment because the behavior is sometimes presented in a joking tone, or because they fear adults won’t take their concerns seriously.
The Education Department urged schools not to ignore conduct that may range “from abusive name-calling to defamatory graffiti to physical violence directed at a student because of a student’s actual or perceived race or ancestry, the country the student’s family comes from, or the student’s religion or cultural traditions.”
“If ignored, this kind of conduct can jeopardize students’ ability to learn, undermine their physical and emotional well-being, provoke retaliatory acts, and exacerbate community conflicts,” the letter said.
The department called for schools to ensure that systems for reporting and responding to bullying and harassment are understood by all students and staff members.
Claims of discrimination against Muslim students have made headlines in recent months, and some have drawn legal scrutiny.
The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether the Irving, Texas, police department violated 14-year-old Muslim student Ahmed Mohamed’s civil rights when officers arrested him after teachers thought a homemade clock he brought to school looked like a bomb.
The family of a 13-year-old middle school student in Gwinnett County, Ga., threatened legal action after they said a teacher asked if the student was carrying a bomb in her backpack. A 7th grader in Vandalia, Ohio, faced potential expulsion after he threatened to kill a 6th grade Muslim student he had called a “son of ISIS,” referring to the Islamic terrorist group that controls territory in Syria and Iraq and whose adherents have been responsible for deadly attacks, including the mass shootings in Paris.
And discussions of Islam can be a sensitive subject for schools. In December, a Virginia district closed due to security concerns after a teacher asked students to write the Islamic declaration of faith in traditional Arabic calligraphy as part of a class assignment.
Diverse Points of View
Schools must address discrimination swiftly, but they should avoid extinguishing sometimes difficult classroom conversations about current events, the Education Department said.
“To be very clear, working to maintain safe learning communities does not, and must not, mean chilling free expression about the issues of the day—this work is about taking thoughtful steps to create space for open and constructive dialogue, while dealing swiftly with actions that create an unlawful hostile environment,” said the letter.
“Protecting free speech means protecting the ability of your students, faculty, staff, and members of the public to hold and express views that may be at odds with your institution’s strongly held values,” the letter continued. “Schools should not ignore the dissonance that this creates, but should instead consciously use these moments as opportunities for reflection, discussion, and increased understanding.”
Wicks, of CAIR, said teachers may be more mindful of how such conversations affect their Muslim students if they have a basic understanding of Islam. The organization has offered training to schools to help them avoid and address classroom discrimination.
Such efforts are not just a feel-good exercise, school climate experts have said. Research shows that students are likely to disengage at school if the actions of their peers or teachers communicate that they don’t belong. And lower levels of engagement correspond with poorer academic performance.
Efforts to include and support Muslim students don’t look much different from those to support and nurture a healthy school climate for all students, school administrators said.
That may mean calling teachers’ attention to situations that may be particularly stressful for certain students. In the case of Muslim students, conversations on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks or after international events may spark concerns, they said.
CAIR applauded the actions taken by educators in the Columbia Heights, Minn., district, where teachers and administrators joined students in a school walkout to protest a school board member, who allegedly posted offensive comments about Muslim people’s hygiene on his Facebook page. The school board member, who denied posting the comments, later resigned.
In Southern California’s Corona Norco school district, about 35 miles west of San Bernardino, administrators have not seen an uptick of bullying or discrimination complaints since the recent shootings, even among its Muslim students, said Reginald Thompkins, the district’s administrative director of instructional support. He credited the district’s ongoing school climate efforts.
Every year, high school students in the district participate in a week called “What If,” holding daily assemblies about issues the students choose to highlight that allow them to ask questions like “what if there was no poverty?” and “what if there were no divorces?” Students almost always ask to discuss race, discrimination, and bullying, Thompkins said. And the conversations are “worth their weight in gold” for the way they help students relate to each other and understand each other throughout the year.
“It allows the kids to have a safe environment to have these discussions,” Thompkins said. “For some kids, this is the only place they can talk about it.”
Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as Feds to K-12: Ensure Safety for Muslims