SAN DIEGO (AP) — One of the nation's largest school districts is defending its campaign to fight Islamophobia and promote understanding of Muslim culture against critics who say it is favoring a religion.
Kevin Beiser, vice president of the San Diego Unified School District board, said Tuesday that the effort is modeled on a plan he advanced several years ago to protect LGBT students. He said bullying of Muslim students is pervasive and vastly underreported.
"Muslim students are constantly being harassed, spit on, verbally abused, pushed, shoved, their hijabs are being pulled," he said, calling it a "serious problem probably in every public school in the country."
Critics planned a protest at Tuesday's school board meeting but no one in the audience rose to speak for or against the effort and there were no visible signs of opposition.
The multiyear plan includes ensuring staff calendars include Muslim holidays, reviewing library materials on Muslim culture, providing resources to teachers and engaging in partnerships with the Council on American Islamic Relations.
The district also plans to consider high school clubs that promote American Muslim culture, create "safe spaces" for students and train staff about Muslim culture. The district is reviewing internal staff calendars to make sure Muslim holidays are recognized.
A letter outlining plans will be sent to staff and parents of its 132,000 students. It's expected to go out before Ramadan begins in late May.
The plan drew little attention when the board approved it 4-0 on April 4, with one member absent. Public comments from staff and community members were uniformly positive.
"We believe this is a great first step in the direction of protecting Muslim students from the bullying that is a direct result of the growing Islamophobia in our state and nation," Hanif Mohebi, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' San Diego chapter, said after the vote. "Other school districts should follow this lead, and we will be happy to work with them to provide resources and trainings."
Pushback gradually spread on the social media and the internet, with written attacks on Islam and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. A Sunday article on the conservative website Breitbart News drew hundreds of reader comments. The headline of a story on the Angry Patriot website that had 35,000 Facebook 'likes' read, "Islamic Takeover CONFIRMED - American School Surrenders to SHARIA LAW."
Mary Baker, founder of Citizens for Quality Education-San Diego, urged the district to retract the policy. Her organization planned a protest at Tuesday's school board meeting.
"Students may be taught about religion in its historical context, but public schools may not teach religion and its tenets," she said. "We care about all students and this new 'anti-bullying' policy specifically crafted to protect Muslim students is discriminatory and may adversely affect the student body."
The school district said on its website that the plan addresses "some of the specific challenges faced by the Muslim student community," which expressed concern about student safety last summer.
"We strongly believe students cannot learn if they are afraid, and so this initiative to combat Islamophobia is focused on eliminating the fear faced by children," it says.
The district said it is not endorsing Islam, favoring a religion or imposing Sharia law.
Beiser said the school calendar and class materials include all major religions with no special treatment for Islam.
"The question is, 'Do all of our students feel safe in the classroom so they can focus on learning?' That's the question that we seek to try to answer with this program."
Last fall, Kansas City Public Schools and California's Oakland Unified School District passed resolutions expressing solidarity with Muslim students.