MERIDEN, Conn. (AP) — In response to a surge in reports of anti-Muslim bullying — students being called terrorists, having their head scarves ripped off and facing bias even from teachers — schools are expanding on efforts deployed in the past to help protect gays, racial minorities and other marginalized groups.
Civil rights organizations and other advocates have been working more closely with schools since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, stirred a new backlash that led the U.S. Justice Department and U.S. Education Department to urge vigilance on the bullying of Muslims.
While stressing that students have rights under the law, and that offenses should be reported, speakers at schools and mosques have also discussed how to create an inclusive culture, how Muslims are scapegoated for attacks and how non-Muslims can be allies to their peers.
"Muslim kids get bulled, gay kids get bullied because other kids are uncomfortable with them, and they show it," said Bill Howe, a multicultural education specialist who spoke at an anti-bullying forum in December for children at Meriden's Baitul Aman mosque. "That causes Muslim students to retreat, to be more isolated. They need to develop critical social skills so they can build relationships."
One mother who attended the forum, put on by the office of the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, said she was relieved to learn help is available.
Shazia Choudry's 13-year-old daughter, Maria, transferred recently from a public school after students repeatedly grabbed away her head scarf, but became frightened one day in January at her private Roman Catholic school when seventh-grade classmates peppered her, the only Muslim student, with questions about the Paris attacks.
"They were saying 'Did you hear about this before the terror attack?' And I was like, 'No I didn't,'" Maria said.
Saleha Qureshi, a member of the mosque, said that in the past several months, her son has been called a racial slur and a "terrorist" by his eighth-grade classmates at a public middle school.
Her son has grown anxious, she said, but does not want her to take matters to the principal. She checks up on him daily, letting him vent to her, but she's not sure what more she ought to do.
"I'm just hoping things will change for him," Qureshi said.
The Anti-Defamation League updated its anti-bias training activities after the Paris attacks to incorporate Islam.
One lesson plan tailored for junior and senior high school students has them discuss ways in which Muslims and Syrian refugees are being scapegoated as a result of the attacks. Another encourages students to discuss connections between stereotypes about Muslim people and acts of bigotry, as well as ways they can support Muslims.
Education officials in most of the ADL's 27 U.S. regional offices have been reporting anti-Muslim incidents, and schools have been requesting materials to help deal with the bullying, said Jinnie Spiegler, the organization's curriculum director. Among other efforts, the agency participated in a town hall meeting at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, where officials said some Muslim students were being called names.
The town hall followed others at the school on topics such as Black Lives Matter, said Andrea Lamphier, a sponsor for the school's Muslim students club. Afterward, she said, a petition drive gathered signatures from more than a third of the student body on a letter criticizing Gov. Larry Hogan for saying the state would not welcome Syrian refugees.
While schools generally do not keep statistics on motivations for bullying, a survey of 600 Muslim students in California by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found in October, even before the latest attacks, that 55 percent reported facing religion-based bullying — a rate twice as high as the national average of students who report being bullied at school. Officials with the group say bullying reports spiked in recent months.
Parents say that incidents often go unreported, particularly among older students, and that many families address the problem by changing schools or home-schooling.
Left unchecked, advocates warn, bullying and harassment can make students feel disconnected from school and hurt their academic performance.
Donna Clark Love, a bullying prevention trainer in Houston, said schools traditionally brought her in for issues affecting students who or gay or have distinguishing physical traits, such as obesity. More recently, anti-Muslim bullying has emerged as another top concern. All result from a lack of acceptance, she said, and she addresses them the same way, by teaching children to have respectful conversations.
In some cases, teachers have taken it on themselves to hold discussions on anti-Muslim bias. Kate Sundeen, a chemistry teacher at the Academy at Palumbo magnet school in Philadelphia, helped to set up a discussion in January that was modeled on a town hall on the Black Lives Matter movement. A panel of a dozen students spoke about their experiences after the Paris attacks, including being accosted by adults in public and harassed over headscarves.
"It was heartbreaking but important and really brave of them to share these experiences," Sundeen said.
This story has been corrected to show the name of the bullying prevention trainer in Houston is Donna Clark Love, not Donna Clarke Love.