School Bullying of Arab and Muslim American Students

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By: Dr. Aref Assaf

First Published in Star Ledger’s NJ.Voices

School bullying has been an unforgiving curse since the first time students were put in a school environment. Mistreatment of minority students, mental, emotional or even physical, has been the fate of countless students. The latest ethnic community to suffer from this phenomenon has been the Arab and Muslim community. The NJ Chapter of American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee will host an important presentation on April 28, 2011, to address the rise of bullying against young Muslim Americans, which have increased in frequency. Many young people in schools are facing emotional and physical abused being called “terrorists” or told “to go home” on a daily basis. When hate speech is not taken seriously, it has the potential to turn violent.

The recent news that an 8-year-old boy was found hanging from a bathroom hook at his school in Louisville, KY, has shocked a whole community and school officials. The son of Somali immigrant parents, the boy was found unconscious and hospitalized with serious injuries, yet it took three weeks for his story to reach national headlines. The sad truth was that the boy had been experiencing chronic bullying, which was not addressed by the school.

In New Jersey, I have heard of several cases where Arab and Muslim children have been the constant victims of harassment by fellow students. Accusations of being a terrorist, a foreigner, and unAmerican top the list of slurs thrown at helpless children. Add to this onslaught the endless attacks on Islam and the gravity of the problem become apparent. The fact is that most school Administrators attempt to treat complaints on an individual basis. Yet they fail to recognize the widespread nature of the epidemic. It is our belief that the NJ Department of Education should begin to address this matter at the highest level and provide appropriate remedial solutions.

The reality is that when irresponsible public officials and political pundits engage in hate speech it has real consequences on the ground. The rhetoric about the Muslim American community on talk radio, national news outlets and in many communities has become poisonous in nature.

Bullying of Muslim Americans is not limited to classrooms and playgrounds. Anti-Muslim sentiment has reared its ugly head over and over again. Consider the recent burning of a Quran by the fringe Pastor Terry Jones, the nationwide spike in anti-mosque sentiment, the recent wave of anti-Sharia bills in more than a dozen states across the country, a Villa Park, CA, councilwoman’s call for violence against Muslim Americans and a recent case where a Muslim woman was refused service as a mattress store because the store manager considered her a national security threat.
Perhaps, New York Congressman Peter King (R-NY) takes the lead amongst politicians who have made a business out of vilifying Muslims, questioning their loyalty and doubting their patriotism. The incremental impact of all these deliberate measures at castigating an entire community eventually seeps into mainstream discourse, the school environment being a ripe soil for such inhuman acts. Left unchecked, bullying of young children may lead some of them into violent acts beyond the school playground.

Young people are the most vulnerable part of our society, and we must do whatever is needed to ensure that they feel safe and secure in our country’s schools. Bullying is not only a problem for young Muslim Americans; it affects millions of children who might be seen as different in the sight of peers and school communities.

In March, President Barack Obama led a conference on bullying to challenge the belief that bullying is a normal rite of passage for youth. Obama emphasized that the federal government, educators, school administrators, and communities all have to work together to put an end to bullying. www.Stopbullying.gov also was launched in order to provide resources for educators and communities on how to address bullying and keep our schools safe.

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has a section for parents on how to file a complaint if their children are being harassed based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability and age in violation of federal laws. It is vital to document and report bullying incidents within six months. Bullying happens when peers, administrators, and parents ignore the signs. Parents must ensure that this epidemic is weeded out of the dark shadows of school hallways and brought to light so that it may be addressed.

New Jersey has taken the lead when Governor Chris Christie signed into law in January, the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act (S-2392). The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act will ensure that teachers and administrators are properly trained to intervene in these incidents, and are required to act when bullying is witnessed or reported. Parents will be empowered with information on their school district’s effectiveness in combating bullying and a direct line of communication with school officials if their child is affected. While we cannot change human nature, we can change how government and school officials respond to unacceptable behavior.

Our Legislators can pass laws but they cannot legislate tolerance and mutual respect. It is, therefore, the responsibility of faith leaders, parents, educators, government and the community to work together in order to create platforms where there can be educated to promote mutual acceptance and understanding. Muslim leaders, religious and civic leaders must formulate tangible narratives to deal with the issue.

The New Jersey Arab American Heritage Commission has embarked on a long-term effort to address the void in the States high school social studies curriculum. By addressing the almost complete absence of positive reorientation of Arab culture, heritage, and history, it is hoped bigotry in all its forms will be eliminated.