Equity & Diversity Opinion

An Urgent Message to School Leaders: Your Arab and Muslim Students Need You

Conflicts in the Middle East spark anti-Muslim collective blame. Schools must respond—now
By Amaarah DeCuir — October 27, 2023 5 min read
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Islamophobic incidents across America have surged after Oct. 7, 2023. Arab and Muslim students are facing anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate speech and bigotry in schools. Federal agencies have issued increased threat assessments warning Arab and Muslim communities of targeted attacks. It is also important to note that antisemitic incidents have also increased since the start of the war, and the same federal agencies are issuing warnings of increased threats to Jewish and Israeli American communities.

Earlier this year, President Joe Biden’s administration established a national strategy countering the rise of antisemitism, which included guidance for schools. Just as schools must protect Jewish students from antisemitism, they must also protect Arab and Muslim students from anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate speech and bigotry and defend their rights to self-expression.

This summer, the U.S. Department of Education hosted a “Free to Learn” conference that addressed students’ faith-based rights, which included research on Islamophobia and antisemitism in schools. School leaders should use the conference resources to create safe and inclusive learning environments.

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The Secretary of Education led an Antisemitism Awareness Campaign to visit communities grappling with rising antisemitic discrimination; it is time to initiate a similar campaign to meet with Muslim and Arab communities facing anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate and discrimination in schools. Students and their families can speak out against harassment and silencing targeting their communities. The department can spotlight schools that are protecting Muslim and Arab students’ rights and creating environments free of harassment and bullying.

As the violence in Israel and Gaza intensifies, Arab and Muslim students are reporting targeted bias and harassment, both from peers and teachers. Although Jewish students are also experiencing a spike in antisemitism in schools, the purpose of this essay is to raise awareness to the ways Arab and Muslim students are facing harassment and backlash that targets their religious and ethnic identities. In the past, Middle East conflicts prompted spikes of anti-Muslim collective blame, and that is happening now.

My remarks are meant to remind school leaders to acknowledge the humanity of all their students by recognizing the unprecedented vulnerability that children face in this unfolding calamity. Early reports indicate that Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students are facing harassment, intimidation, and discrimination in school when they voice support for a ceasefire and the protection of humanitarian interventions in Gaza, including open access to water, food, shelter, fuel, and medical treatment. In fact, during this crisis, students from all backgrounds are at increased risk of hateful backlash when speaking out against Palestinian oppression and human-rights violations.

Outside Denver, Palestinian high school students told the local news of racist bullying and being called “terrorists” by peers and teachers. In a lunchroom in South Jersey, a fight broke out among students over opposing views on the Israel-Gaza crisis. School leaders must respond, or they risk jeopardizing the safety and well-being of students.

We have seen this before. In my own research, I have found that every September when 9/11 is taught in schools, Muslim students experience slurs, insults, and anti-Muslim racism from peers and teachers. In fact, after other acts of terrorism, Muslims face collective blame and calls to denounce the attacks.

We need school leaders to decisively respond to violations of Arab and Muslim students’ physical and emotional safety and security within schools. This includes reminding teachers how to identify anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bullying and establishing expectations that all reported incidents will be fairly documented and immediately addressed by school administration.

School leaders can provide trauma-informed care by validating the fears and grief many of our children experience as they watch what is one of the greatest human catastrophes of their lives unfold. All students deserve to feel cared for and nurtured by their teachers when they experience collective trauma.

This may not come easy, because schools are not enclaves to single groups. Especially in metropolitan areas like Detroit, New York City, and Washington that have sizable populations of Arab, Muslim, and Jewish students, leaders cannot cower behind divisive politics and fail to acknowledge the fear and suffering being felt across communities. They must model inclusive school leadership and be firm in protecting all students from hate and racist discourse while being generous in extending empathy to those experiencing fear and grief.

Students have a First Amendment right to express their outrage at the violations of international human-rights protections. They have a right to engage in political speech and freely exchange ideas. If students abide by existing codes of conduct and do not promote hate, violence, or disrupt the school setting, school leaders cannot censor their speech. School leaders are responsible for protecting all students from harassment and discrimination when engaging in protected speech in school, even when their views challenge dominant American discourse.

Students also have First Amendment protections to pray at school during non-instructional time, and some students may want to increase their reliance on prayer to heal from the collective trauma they are witnessing. Research confirms that prayer facilitates healing and community that many students seek in times of crisis.

However, Muslim students report facing bias and discrimination when they assert their rights to pray. Some face religious bullying, which can both hinder their spiritual development and increase risks of mental illness.

School leaders can respond with clear actions that assert the right to pray as a protected civil right. This can include setting aside school spaces for prayer and meditation for all students, and establishing fair and equitable practices for students to access those spaces during the school day.

American public school students are not numb to the news. Palestinian American students are traumatized by the eruption of violence that has led to the loss of lives of their families and communities back home. Arab American students grieve the outbreak of instability and war in their homeland, and Muslim American students mourn the devastation inflicted upon their brothers and sisters of faith. Jewish students are also in mourning. Whether or not they share a background, ancestry, culture, identity, religion, students are in collective grief over the loss of human life and the silenced calls for a ceasefire.

This is the time for school leaders to stand resolute in their protections for all students and affirm their commitments to lead schools toward equity and justice for all.


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