Forty percent of Muslim students in California have been bullied at school because of their faith, according to a report released this month by the Anaheim-based Council on American-Islamic Relations California.
Though a sharp decline from the previous year, that’s more than twice the national average for school bullying.
The study, which was conducted by the state chapter of the nation’s largest Muslim American civil rights and advocacy group, surveyed about 1,500 Muslim students ages 11 to 18 in public and private schools statewide.
Nearly 30% reported teachers and administrators making offensive comments about Islam and Muslims, while 35% said they had seen offensive comments or posts on social media.
“We really can’t ignore the fact that right now in the media, and among a lot of our politicians, hate language is being normalized in a way that trickles down to our students,” said Patricia Shnell, senior civil rights attorney for CAIR-LA in Anaheim, one of four offices for CAIR-CA. “We really need to continue to push back against this idea that you can talk about an entire group of people in a disrespectful manner and it be acceptable.”
Ahlam Elabed, the mother of a special needs high school student in Redlands and a client of CAIR-LA, said her son has been called a terrorist, had “Allahu akbar” — Arabic for “God is great” — shouted at him in a ridiculing way and had his photo taken without his permission, Photoshopped with racist images and distributed to classmates.
“My son was ashamed of the bullying, and worse it happened so often that he became accustomed to it, he began to feel that enduring the bullying was more simple than the risk he would face of retaliation were he to report it,” she said in a statement.
Suhein Beck, a resident of Trabuco Canyon and a former board member of New Horizon, an Islamic school in Irvine, said Muslim children are also bullied outside of school. She recalled that after the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, which left 14 dead, a Muslim girl she knew who wears a hijab received physical threats at a mall.
“It always flares up after an incident,” she said. “San Bernardino hit us hard.”
At the same time, the report shows that faith-based bullying of Muslim students is for the first time on the decline.
Since CAIR-CA started surveying Muslim students about bullying in 2013, the numbers had always trended upward. But this year’s 2018-19 study marked a 13% drop in bullying rates since 2016-17, when 53% reported bullying.
“Each year we had seen that number rise, and this year we saw a rather significant drop,” Shnell said. “It seems like we’re finally seeing a positive turn in the trend.”
Fayaz Nawabi, policy and advocacy manager for CAIR-LA, partly attributed the decline in bullying to the work the organization has done in recent years.
CAIR-LA, he said, has worked with school districts in Orange and Los Angeles counties to raise awareness and provide educators cultural competency training.
In addition, he said the organization has pushed for anti-bullying legislation in Sacramento, in particular the 2016 Safe Place to Learn Act, which specifically addresses the bullying of Muslim, Sikh and South Asian students, and the 2018 Bullying bill, which requires school districts to adopt new procedures to prevent bullying and to offer training to teachers, students and families on how to identify and combat bullying.
Now, Nawabi said, CAIR-CA is helping to push for the ethnic studies bill, which was placed on hold earlier this year. Having a more inclusive curriculum is another way to combat bullying, he said, because it will help students — and teachers — understand the contributions diverse communities have made to the state, as well as the impact of slurs.
“It’ll mitigate a lot of ignorance,” Nawabi said. “Through the ethnic studies bill and a curriculum that includes all people, we’re able to curb that ‘otherizing,’ not only of the Muslim community, but of all historically marginalized groups.”
In the meantime, Shnell said there are also steps parents can take, including teaching children the harms of bullying and keeping open lines of communication with children so that if it does occur it can be stopped early.
“I would say to parents who their student is the victim of any kind of bullying, to make sure you’re working with your student so they know the bullying is not their fault,” she said, “that they should not have to change anything about themselves to not be bullied.”