SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Pearl Abdo, a mother of seven children in San Jose, lived one of her worst fears: the bullying of her children in school for being Muslim.
Abdo recounted an incident involving her 15-year-old daughter who wears a hijab – an Islamic headscarf. Her daughter was speaking to a classmate when the teacher approached her and said: “If you don’t stop talking, I’m going to rip that thing off your head.”
The targeted student accused her teacher of making a racist comment. Her teacher shrugged casually and said “I don’t care,” recounted Abdo.
Abdo shared her daughter’s story last month at a press conference by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a national civil rights organization, to unveil their new survey on bullying and harassment of Muslim youth in California.
The study, called “Growing in Faith: California Muslim Youth Experiences with Bullying, Harassment and Religious Accommodation in Schools,” polled nearly 500 youth ages 11 to 18 who attend public schools in 21 counties in the state. The survey was conducted in Oct. and Nov. of 2012.
It found that 50 percent of students said they were subjected to mean comments by their peers because of their religion, and one in five girls who wore a hijab, reported being bullied.
The study revealed that harassment of Muslim youth by teachers was a bigger problem than expected.
“One of the things that we learned was incredibly frightening and I would say even shocking for the staff was the experience of teacher harassment in the classrooms,” said Zahra Billoo, executive director of CAIR in the Bay Area.
About a fifth (18 percent) of those polled said they felt uncomfortable during class discussions concerning Islam and Muslim majority countries. Almost the same number (19 percent) said they felt that their teacher did not respect their religion.
The project, the first of its kind for young Muslims, reached out to the community to encourage parents to contact CAIR if their children faced any problems at school due to peer-to-peer bullying, teacher misrepresentation of Islam or accommodation issues (such as absences to observe religious holidays) so CAIR could provide the right resources to handle the situation.
A 15-year-old student from Garden Grove shared her experience in the survey’s comment section, writing that “one of her teachers laughed along with a kid” who had called her oppressed.
Rachel Roberts, CAIR’s Civil Rights coordinator for Northern California, says her organization has helped to mediate harassment complaints by Muslim parents. She said, in general, the schools where complaints surfaced were very responsive and willing to change their policies. In Abdo’s case, the school gave all the staff cultural sensitivity training.
Kirby Hoy, the director of instruction for the San Ramon School District (who was not involved in CAIR’s survey), says CAIR’s findings will be a resource to his staff as the district is taking steps to study and respond to increased bullying.
“Much of what we have done is to change our instruction, to be more culturally and linguistically responsive,” he said. “We work with a team, who over a three month period, works with the teachers and principals to develop teaching strategies that help the staff be more effective in the classroom … with an emphasis embedded in culturally and responsive teaching.”
For Abdo, her daughter’s harassment resulted in a positive change.
Her daughter created a Muslim Student Association at her high school, where Muslim youth can share their experiences and provide moral support to one another.
Abdo said the study is an important first step to “establish awareness that our kids are suffering” and that remedying the problem is key, because “we want to see them have the best in every way not only in their education, but in their emotional security.”
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