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Muslim Schoolchildren Bullied By Fellow Students And Teachers

LA Johnson/NPR
According to new research, bullying affects students of different faiths in different ways.
LA Johnson/NPR

Muslim children are more likely to be bullied in school than children of other faiths. A new survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) reveals that 42 percent of Muslims with children in K–12 schools report bullying of their children because of their faith, compared with 23 percent of Jewish and 20 percent of Protestant parents.

These results confirm recent findings by other research and advocacy groups showing that bullying of students of color is on the rise.

After hearing stories from educators nationwide about the recent surge in bullying, Maureen Costello, director of the Teaching Tolerance program at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), decided to investigate. During the election, Costello sent a questionnaire to thousands of educators across the country. The results were startling. Over 90 percent of educators reported that school climate had been negatively affected by the election. In an earlier survey last March, with over 5,000 respondents, more than 1,000 mentioned Donald Trump — five times more than the other politicians mentioned in the survey combined.

"The elephant in the room was that Mr. Trump's campaign had an effect. We could not avoid the fact that children were imitating him both in word, tone and behavior, said Costello.

According to the SPLC's study, "The Trump Effect" arises from comments the President has made about immigrants and minorities, which have emboldened politicized bullying in schools. Muslim children, in particular, have been primary targets for hate incidents. While the SPLC's results are not scientific, the organization says a "tremendous number of responses as well as the overwhelming confirmation of what has been anecdotally reported in the media cannot be ignored or dismissed."

Ron Avi Astor, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies school violence, finds the survey results unsurprising. "I get lots of calls from schools and school districts. There's been a two-year spike in school bullying and harassment, and right now there is a generalized climate of permission to say hateful things to other groups that are deemed as 'different.'" While Astor said that many groups, especially Jewish, Latino and undocumented children, have also been the target of hateful remarks, he acknowledges that Muslim children are often under particular stress as many of them come from immigrant families.

Although negative stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination towards Muslim Americans increased after the September 11, 2001 attacks, then president George W. Bush quickly condemned equating Islam with terrorism. In an address to a joint session of Congress just nine days after the attack, Bush said, "the enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends... Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them."

In contrast, President Trump has taken a more inflammatory approach to addressing Islamic extremism. The President has not only issued restrictions on immigration from several majority-Muslim countries, but he has also blamed Muslims for shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino.

Schoolyard bullies aren't the only ones who have taken President Trump's words to heart. The ISPU study also revealed that teachers and school officials have participated in one in four bullying incidents involving Muslim students.

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed letters of complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education on behalf of an 11-year-old Muslim Somali refugee student who was repeatedly discriminated against by his teacher in Arizona. "I can't wait until Trump is elected. He's going to deport all you Muslims," the teacher exclaimed, according to the ACLU letter of complaint "Muslims shouldn't be given visas. They'll probably take away your visa and deport you. You're going to be the next terrorist, I bet."

Soon after, the boy's classmates followed the teacher's lead and called him a terrorist, according to the complaint. They also accused him of planning to blow up the school bus on the ride home. When the boy's mother complained to the school, administrators encouraged him to withdraw.

Incidents like these can cause what social epidemiologist Nancy Krieger calls "embodied inequality." Researchers from Northwestern University have found that everyday feelings of discrimination increase the body's levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Similarly, Kathryn Freeman Anderson, a sociologist at the University of Houston, has found that emotional and physical stress from perceived racist treatment is linked to overall poorer mental and physical health.

While similar studies have primarily concentrated on blacks and Latinos, Farha Abbasi, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University and managing editor of the Journal of Muslim Mental Health, warns of the dangers of overlooking the experiences of Muslim youth. "At the moment, we see high stress and anxiety as well as a sense of uncertainty regarding what the future will hold," said Abbasi. "There is a reinforcement of distance of the hyphenated self. Muslim-Americans are being forced to choose an identity rather than being allowed to choose both. Suddenly, American Muslims are being cast as the 'other' and being forced to choose an identity."

According to Abbasi, racism and discrimination can cause a cycle of "defensiveness, dissociation, disconnection, dissonance and, finally, distress or desperation." To her, the increase in bullying among Muslim schoolchildren is a life-or-death matter. People who are bullied are more susceptible to suicide. "Think of trauma and toxic stress as putting brick over brick on someone's shoulder," she explained. "Right now, many Muslim children are carrying a very heavy burden and one more brick can be the breaking point."

While Costello estimates that over 70 percent of bullying is based on bias and group differences, most anti-bullying programs do not incorporate culturally responsive training. To education activists like Debbie Almontaser, founding and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, New York City's only Arabic-language public school, this oversight prevents teachers and administrators from fully comprehending and responding to the severity and offensiveness of comments made to students.

"I'd like to see schools provide teachers with culturally responsive training where educators not only learn about Muslim children and their faith, customs, and traditions, but also about the vast diversity of the public school system," she said.

Almontaser has advocated for students across the city whose complaints about harassment by peers have not been taken seriously. Recently, she collaborated with the Coalition for Educational Justice, a group pushing for equity in New York City public schools. The organization's goal is to ensure that schools are sanctuaries from racism, misogyny, and xenophobia.

Heather Weaver, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, says that "under Title IV, schools are not only prohibited from discriminating against students on the basis of race, religion, nationality, and other characteristics, but they also have an obligation to stop harassment of those protected categories." In addition to their ongoing Arizona case, the ACLU is also engaging school districts across the country to stop harassment of Muslim students.

Despite these troubling trends, many activists and educators remain hopeful.

"While the number of hate crimes has been on the rise, the support from other communities has been tenfold," said Faiyaz Jaffer, a chaplain at New York University's Islamic Center. Following the election, a Muslim student prayer room was vandalized with pro-Trump graffiti, but by the end of the week, students organized a rally against hate.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that Americans are expressing warmer feelings towards a variety of religious groups. Costello also emphasizes the large number of schools that did not experience an increase in bullying following the election. "There are some schools that have done a very good job at making anti-bullying programs part of their school culture, and have really fostered a culture of respect around the idea of respecting diversity and thriving in difference. We've also heard stories about students allying themselves with students being targeted and standing up for them and making it clear they had their backs," she said.

Nicole Cobb, executive director of school counseling at Metro Nashville Public Schools, counts her district among those that have weathered the post-election anxiety with success. Despite being Tennesse's second largest school district, Nashville accounts for only 12 percent of statewide bullying incidents. Following the election, MNPS issued a statement offering special free post-election counseling for any student experiencing anxiety or stress. The district has also been awarded a grant to implement social and emotional learning programs that help foster positive school climates. Cobb believes this approach has enabled them to better support students as they navigate waves of emotions.

But Almontaser cautions that support for students cannot end with support groups. "The best way to help children in the current climate is through counseling, but also through educating them about their rights.... It's important that they know that the United States is founded on vast, diverse community and that educators are not only focused on creating safe communities, but tolerant ones."

Akinyi Ochieng is a writer and researcher studying at the London School of Economics. Follow her @kikiochieng.