Discrimination and bullying targeting Muslim students is a growing problem reflective of the broader social and political environment in which anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobia is increasingly common and accepted. This public Othering of Muslims has consequently created school cultures in which demonstrated anti-Muslim bias from student peers, educators, and administrative officials is heightened and often ignored.
It is important to remember that students often do not report bullying, harassment, or discrimination for a number of reasons. Students may be afraid to tell their parents or other adults for fear of recrimination from peers. Many students consider the antagonistic behavior to be “normal.” Students who have been bullied may suffer long-term consequences, such as an increased risk of depression, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, decreased academic achievement, and poor school adjustment.
In 2016, CAIR recorded 209 incidents of anti-Muslim bias, including harassment, intimidation, and violence, targeting students.
According to a 2015 report published by CAIR California, 55 percent of Muslim students aged eleven to eighteen reported being subject to some form of bullying due to their faith. That is twice the national rate of all students who report being bullied at school.
Following Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, a number of direct attacks on students, ranging from verbal harassment to physical violence, were recorded. Especially pronounced were incidents where female students who wear headscarves were targeted. In the week immediately succeeding the election, CAIR recorded 17 incidents of female students being threatened, attacked, and their religious attire touched, pulled, or forcibly removed at a school or on a college campus.
In one case, the day after the presidential election, a high school student in Los Angeles was approached by a male student who grabbed her hair and attempted to rip off her headscarf. The attacker said, "You shouldn't be wearing that, you towelhead. You're not American. This isn't America. This isn't what America stands for.”
Earlier in the year in May, a student left her dorm in Michigan to go for a run and was accosted by five male students. When she attempted to run away from the group, they surrounded her and took turns shoving and verbally harassing her. Her assailants screamed racial and religious slurs, including, “Arab go back to your country, you don’t belong here.”
In addition to bullying by students, the number of religion-based bias incidents involving discriminatory behavior from educators and administrative officials is concerning. As individuals with authority, their anti-Muslim bias and behavior not only sets an improper model for other students, but marginalizes Muslim students academically and deprives them of opportunities to develop the skills and self-assurance necessary for success. It can also lead to a failure to respond to Muslim student complaints of bullying or inappropriate behavior. Public schools in particular have an obligation to protect all students and ensure that they receive an equal educational experience irrespective of religion, race, or gender.
In one case, an Arizona teacher snapped at a Muslim student in front of the class when he raised his hand to answer a question and said, “All you Muslims think you are so smart.” She proceeded to rant and, referring to the fact that the student and his family were resettled refugees, said, “I can’t wait until Trump is elected. He’s going to deport all you Muslims. 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.” On his way home in the bus, his fellow classmates mocked him and made similar anti-Muslim comments. They taunted that his visa would be revoked, called him a “terrorist,” and accused him of planning to blow up the bus.
In another incident in North Carolina, a teacher allegedly grabbed a five-year-old student by the neck and began to strangle him. Prior to this, the boy had switched classrooms after his mother had met with the principal and guidance counselor regarding the teacher’s treatment of her son. The teacher routinely singled him out from his classmates, reportedly called him a “bad Muslim boy,” and required him to carry a heavy backpack throughout the day, which caused the child to develop back pain.
The expression of anti-Muslim sentiment through direct targeting of Muslim students by other students, educators, and administrative officials has also been accompanied by acts of anonymous harassment, intimidation, and vandalism. In 2016, at least nine educational institutions were subject to anti-Muslim vandalism, and a number of university campuses, including the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, had the phrase “Stop Islam” written in graffiti on walls and walkways.
Following President-Elect Donald Trump’s win, Muslim students at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering found “TRUMP” scrawled on the door to their prayer room. A stall in the women’s restroom at the State University of New York at New Paltz was defaced with racist and anti-Muslim statements, including “ISIS is calling, Muslims can leave.”
In response to the alarming increase in anti-Muslim bias incidents targeting students, a number of school departments, boards, and districts have issued strong statements and taken steps to push back against hate speech, intimidation, and violence. The US Department of Education issued a letter outlining a series of actions it would undertake to confront discrimination and promote inclusive school environments. This included the creation of a new website on religious discrimination which would provide information about federal laws protecting students, an updated civil rights complaint form, an expanded survey of America's public schools on religious-based bullying, and outreach on confronting religious harassment in education.
The Modern Language Association's Executive Council similarly issued a statement against anti-Muslim bias which stated that “The MLA condemns any and all violations of free speech and academic freedom, including those based on race, religious affiliation and ethnicity. We especially deplore the firings and intimidation of those teachers who aid in our understanding of Islam."
Local school boards have also taken action to address Islamophobia: board members of the San Diego Unified District voted unanimously in favor of a plan to address Islamophobia and the bullying of Muslim students, and in Missouri, the Kansas City Public School board approved a resolution which condemned violence and hate speech and expressed support for Muslim students.
Taking an exemplary step forward, California governor Jerry Brown signed “The Safe Place to Learn Act” on September 25, 2016. This legislation requires that the state’s Department of Education ensure that school districts “provide information on existing school site and community resources to educate teachers, administrators, and other school staff on the support of Muslim, Sikh, and other pupils who may face anti-Muslim bias and bullying.”
State and Federal Government
[Note: For references, access the full report here.]
This website is a project of CAIR's Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia.