School Climate & Safety

Islamic Schools and Muslim Youngsters Report Harassment

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 26, 2001 5 min read
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The number of reported incidents of harassment, threats, or vandalism against Islamic schools or Muslim children and youths mounted last week, but so did efforts by Muslim and Middle Eastern organizations and U.S. government leaders to prevent such incidents.

Some Muslims and people of Middle Eastern backgrounds in the United States said they believe they are in a better position now than they were during past international crises involving the Middle East or Islamic countries to get accurate information out to the public and schools about what they stand for.

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“During the Gulf War, a lot of Arab-American students felt they were silenced,” said Marvin Wingfield, the director of education and outreach for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington. “Although people are still feeling silenced ... and the hate crimes are much worse than during the Gulf War, what’s different are much more immediate and conscious efforts by educators to correct the problems.”

Shabbir Mansuri, the founding director of the Council on Islamic Education—a group in Fountain Valley, Calif., that provides resources on Islam to public school teachers and textbook publishers— agreed. “Not only are Muslims and Arabs more visible ... but the organizations are there,” he said. “Five or 10 years ago, as a community they were the new kids on the block, so they didn’t have the organizations.”

Calls From Educators

Representatives of Muslim and Middle Eastern organizations in this country said last week that they had received a number of calls from school administrators seeking information about Islam since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which have generally been attributed to Muslims assumed to have had a deep animus toward the United States.

For example, the Islamic Educational Outreach Program in San Diego heard from educators after it sent a letter to local schools offering to provide speakers to talk “about Islam and its position on the recent tragedy.”

One of the administrators who accepted the offer was McLean King, the superintendent of the Lemon Grove, Calif., school district, which has 4,500 students. He arranged a meeting for late last week between three Muslims representing the organization and the district’s principals, social workers, psychologists, and instructional leaders.

The meeting was particularly needed, he said, because local newspapers had reported that three people suspected of hijacking planes for the attacks on Sept. 11 had apparently lived for a time in Lemon Grove, across from the Mount Vernon Elementary School.

“We thought one of the things we’re going to have to be sensitive to is providing a safe haven for all children,” Mr. King said.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige sent a letter to school officials nationwide expressing concern about “harassment and violence directed at persons perceived to be Arab-Americans or of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin, including children.”

He urged schools “to make sure that assemblies, classroom discussions, and other school activities held to honor victims of the tragedies do not inadvertently foster the targeting of Arab-American students for harassment or blame.” He also said schools should have in place a system to intervene if any students tried to endanger other students.

During a visit to Washington’s Islamic Center earlier in the week, President Bush similarly called on Americans to treat Muslims with respect. “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” Mr. Bush said. He renewed his call for tolerance in his address to a joint session of Congress last Thursday.

School Incidents

But last week, the news media continued to report incidents in which people who apparently were at least perceived to be Muslim or Middle Eastern were targeted for hate crimes. At least two men—a Sikh and Indian immigrant in Mesa, Ariz., and a Pakistani Muslim in Dallas—were killed in what were suspected to be such crimes. School-related incidents included the following:

  • Fearing for their safety, five Palmdale, Calif., high school students stayed home from school on Sept. 18 because their names were listed in a threatening letter found at the school. Police investigated the source of the letter, which said the students listed, most of whom are of Middle Eastern descent, would be killed that day in retaliation for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Sgt. Darrel Brown of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office.He said police found the threat not to be credible. The principal met with the students and their parents and explained the situation, Sgt. Brown said. He said police found the threat not to be credible.

  • Police in Fridley, Minn., said last week they were investigating who had put toilet paper in the bushes and trees around the Al-Amal School, a 320- student K-11 private Islamic school there, on Sept. 12. A student at Al- Amal School, 16-year-old Sumaiya Mamdani, who wears Islamic dress, said in an interview that she was verbally assaulted on a public bus while returning to her school on Sept. 13 from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where she takes a precalculus class. “I was just sitting there reading a book,” she recalled. “All of a sudden I look up, and I see this man pointing at me and shouting, and saying the b-word and calling me a terrorist.”

  • The sheriff’s department of St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana charged two young men, ages 15 and 20, with attempted aggravated criminal damage to property after they were caught trying to shoot a pellet gun into an Islamic school in Arabi, La., during the weekend following the terrorist attacks, according to the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

  • Police arrested a 29-year-old man after he drove a 1993 Ford Mustang on Sept. 17 into the front doors of the Islamic Center of Cleveland in Parma, Ohio, which has a private Islamic school on its campus.

  • At Locust Elementary School in Fontana, Calif., a Muslim parent and a non-Muslim parent injured each other in a dispute on school grounds on Sept. 13. Both parents were injured, but not seriously, according to a school official.

Staff Writer Lisa Fine contributed to this report.

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