The Trend That Never Ends: The Rising Wave of Islamophobia-Fueled School Bullying

By Sally Horna, CAIR-SFBA Civil Rights Legal Fellow

In school, I knew three things to be true: pajama day was the best day of the year, pizza should always be on the lunch menu, and it was only a matter of time before I or someone I knew would be bullied. When I reminisce with friends about our childhood—which was not long ago—being bullied is one experience that we all share, almost as a rite of passage.

Best case scenario—bullying extends to unpleasant and unnecessary name-calling. Worst case scenario—a student is physically assaulted. While American Muslim students are not immune to bullying rooted in Islamophobia, as the Islamophobic rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign escalated so did its negative impact on American Muslim students.

In October of 2017, the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations released its biennial report on school bullying, Unshakable: The Bullying of Muslim Students and the Unwavering Movement to Eradicate It (“School Bullying Report”). This report documents religious-based bullying of Muslim students in California schools. Its findings are drawn from a statewide survey of over 1,000 Californian Muslim students.

While 17% of American students in general report being bullied two to three times a month or more within a school semester,[1] CAIR-California’s report reveals that American Muslim students experience bullying at twice the rate of the national average. Additionally, 26% of surveyed students reported being victims of cyberbullying, and 57% of students had viewed their peers making defamatory and bigoted comments about Islam and Muslims online.[2] 

The School Bullying Report also gave Californian Muslim students the opportunity to share in their own words their experience with bullying. One female student said, “One month someone pulled off my hijab. The next month someone hit the back of my head.” [3]Another student shared, “They call me a terrorist when I get frustrated. They say ‘you’re going to bomb us and laugh.'" [4]

Unfortunately, bullying is not specific to American Muslim children. Twenty-four percent of African-American students, 17.2% of Latinx students, and 9% of Asian-American students report being bullied at school.[5] And in 2016, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed that 34.2% of LGBT youth respondents were bullied in school.[6] However, despite the frequency of school bullying across identities, the 2016 presidential election severely exacerbated the bullying and targeting of American Muslim students in particular.

We cannot allow school bullying to continue as a normalized aspect of the American education system. Educators, parents, lawmakers, and advocacy organizations can change this narrative.

            School staff and administrators should become familiar with students’ identities, which include their religion, race, ethnic background, and sexual and gender identities. Further, schools should strive to create an environment where these various identities are welcomed and not “othered.” Schools officials can support their staff and administrators in anti-bullying efforts by introducing workshops such as bystander training. In fact, CAIR-SFBA conducts bystander trainings for communities, schools, and companies throughout the Bay Area. Other organizations, such as WhyIslam.org, Islamic Network Groups, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Program are all equipped to provide necessary information to further the understanding of Islam and American Muslims specifically. Apart from the bystander trainings, CAIR-California is also dedicated to working with students, parents, and school administrators to work through issues that affect Muslim students.

            Parents can also play a key role in the efforts to end school bullying by asserting their children’s right to learn in a bias-free environment.[7] Under California law, schools must establish policies and procedures that respond to complaints of bullying and harassment.[8] Along with following the procedures detailed by the school, parents of impacted Muslim American students should also report any school bullying and discrimination to their local CAIR-California office, whose contact information can be found at http://ca.cair.com.

            Finally, Congress has an obligation to ensure the safety and protection of students at the national level, especially considering that there is currently no federal law that addresses bullying. One relevant action item that Congress should pass is the Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2017. The Act would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to require school districts in states that receive ESEA funds to adopt codes of conduct that prohibit bullying and harassment based on a student’s religion, race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.[9] This Act would also require states to report data on bullying and harassment to the Department of Education.[10] From there, the Department of Education must  produce a report on the state reported data on bullying and harassment to Congress every two years.[11]

            When bullying becomes a prevalent part of students’ learning environment it can leave a resounding impact on their mental health and sense of belonging. This effect is heightened for Muslim students who often face harassment directly and who are also expected to constantly defend against Islamophobic stereotypes. The passage of the Safe Schools Improvement Act, along with concerted action by school administrators, can make an already difficult phase in a student’s life a little easier.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations is the largest American Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States. Its mission is to enhance a general understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding. CAIR-California is the organization’s largest and oldest chapter, with five officers in the Greater Los Angeles Area, the Sacramento Valley, San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at http://ca.cair.com.

 

[1] https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-bullying

[2] Unshakable: The Bullying of Muslim Students and the Unwavering Movement to Eradicate It. October 2017.

[3] Id. at 19.

[4] Id.

[5] National Center for Educational Statistics, 2015. 

[6] Like Walking Through a Hailstorm: Discrimination Against LGBT Youth in US Schools, Human Rights Watch, 2016.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2017. H.R. 1957. 115th Congress (2017-2018).

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

Student-Scholars: Citizenship Rights and Gender Inequality in Kuwait