While 2020 was a challenging year for parents, students, and teachers alike with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing remote learning throughout nearly all school districts in California, Muslim students continued to find themselves targets of Islamophobia.
CAIR-CA’s civil rights attorneys and youth advocates interacted with and assisted families concerned about peer-to-peer bullying, biased treatment by educators and administrators, Islamophobic content in curricula, and provision of religious accommodations for Muslim students. Remote learning meanwhile came with blessings such as depriving students engaged in bullying of the opportunities to pick on their targets especially given added supervision by teachers and parents/guardians during online learning opportunities. On the other hand, virtual learning also presented challenges such as allowing students with tech workarounds to engage in bullying and harassment in addition to exacerbating bullying based on social inequities and perpetuating in-group versus outgroup dynamics.42
To advance the rights of Muslim students and their families, CAIR-CA urged school districts to take proactive steps to ameliorate the effects of bullying and harassment that occurred based on actual or perceived characteristics such as religion, race, and national origin. CAIR-CA did so by engaging directly with students, parents, and school administrators through legal action and anti-bullying workshops designed to ensure that state and federal laws prohibiting discrimination in schools are enforced.43
Our advocacy on behalf of impacted students is intended to hold offenders accountable for engaging in harassment and discriminatory behavior, with the goal of ensuring that Muslim youth across the state feel safe and valued in their learning environments. CAIR-CA’s increased engagement is a result of our sustained advocacy with Muslim students and educators in California’s K-12 schooling system as detailed in our latest biennial report entitled “Singled Out: Islamophobia in the Classroom and the Impact of Discrimination on Muslim Students.” 44 The report found that 40% of all respondents were bullied at school for identifying or being perceived as Muslim. Disturbingly, nearly one out of three Muslim students also reported not feeling welcome or respected in school by their peers or educators because of their religious beliefs.45 While there was evidence of a decline in offensive statements directed at students by school administrators, with a reported drop from 38% in 2016 to 29% in 2019, several instances proved there was a significant amount of work left to be done in eradicating Islamophobia in the classroom.46
In one incident, CAIR-SFBA’s attorneys represented the family of a 9thgrader at a high school in the Cotati- Rohnert Park Unified School District (“CRPUSD”) who faced harassment and bullying by his classmates at school. These incidents spilled over into social media. The student was targeted specifically because of his ethnic background and religion as a Palestinian-American Muslim in a school with very few other students sharing his identity. In October 2019, he was sent a photoshopped picture on Snapchat with himself, Osama Bin Laden, and a plane crashing into the World Trade Center towers to suggest his resemblance and personal affiliation with the 9/11 attacks and ideologically motivated violence. This incident was followed by text messages threatening bodily harm. Shortly after, the student was accosted by several aggressors who came up to him intending to heckle and hurt him.
This prompted other students to call campus security to intervene and protect the student. While the school suspended some of the students engaged in bullying, other students continued to harass the client by terming him a “snitch” for informing his parents of these incidents.
To smooth over the situation without involving law enforcement or further punitive disciplinary measures, the Muslim student’s parents, with CAIR-SFBA’s support, reached out to school administrators to suggest a presentation on Islam and anti-Muslim bullying to both dispel any stereotypes regarding the faith as well as to arm students with the tools to spot harassment and discrimination in school. The workshop that CAIRCA and the Islamic Networks Group conducted helped prevent incidents of bullying for a few months and helped shed light on the prevalence of anti-Muslim harassment in the school.
For the next few months, the parents of the Muslim student accompanied him during lunch breaks at school to shield him from physical and verbal attacks. On a day when the client’s mother was unable to be present at lunch with him, the student who had been leading the harassment approached him menacingly and began to threaten him while pretending to hit him on the back of his neck. Despite repeated attempts by the family to prevent such incidents from occurring, the school refused to take affirmative steps to prevent the harassment. Soon after, the parents requested that his classes be adjusted to reduce exposure to students who were bullying him. Around this time, the student reported to his parents that he constantly feared for his life and well-being. A visit to his doctor confirmed that his recent mental and physical health issues including heightened anxiety, insomnia and headaches were being exacerbated by the bullying. He became increasingly withdrawn at school.
CAIR-SFBA attorneys assisted the student and his family in filing an official complaint through the Uniform Complaint Process (“UCP”) against the school for failing to take the necessary steps to prevent recurrence of the harassment faced by the Muslim student. The UCP requires local educational agencies such as schools and district offices of education to take immediate responsibility for investigating complaints and issuing findings.47 CRPUSD was forced to hire an independent investigator whose findings substantiated the claims that the Muslim student had experienced multiple instances of discriminatory harassment based on his ethnicity in violation of state and federal statutes. The investigator further found that the school’s response did not comply with the requirements of the UCP by failing to inform the family of their right to file a complaint and in investigating. The investigator ordered the school to train all administrators and educators on identifying, intervening, and preventing instances of bullying especially if students are targeted based on protected characteristics like ethnic origin and religion. CAIR-SFBA has continued working with the family and the school district to ensure the fashioning of appropriate remedies.
CAIR-SFBA’s attorneys handled another incident involving the suspension of a high school student who advocated for his right to practice his faith during school. The client, an 11th grader of Yemeni origin in the Emery Unified School District (EUSD) was accosted by a School Resource Officer while he was praying quietly in a corner of the school library despite having permission from his supervising teacher and the school librarian. After his prayer rug was confiscated, the young man was then sent to the Principal’s office for further discipline while the school announced that students were no longer allowed to pray during school hours. The announcement further stressed that being allowed to pray was a matter of privilege and not an absolute right that the school would adhere to. The school had previously been supportive of Muslim students praying during school hours and had assigned a school counselor to monitor and support the students.
Shortly after, the student’s family reached out to CAIR-SFBA for legal advice and a just resolution to their religious accommodation concerns. Given the sudden change in policy, Muslim students were afraid to pray at school. Upon advice from our attorneys, the student returned to school the next day where he was refused entry, given a notice of suspension, and informed by the school principal to not return. Effectively, the student was suspended from school for refusing to cooperate with the school administrators and insisting politely that he be allowed to perform prayer within suitable times. In addition, his prior requests for inter-district transfer to another high school were denied.
Our attorneys worked with school equity advocates to arrange a meeting with the EUSD superintendent, the principal, and teachers involved in these incidents to resolve this concerning situation. CAIR-SFBA demanded the immediate revocation of the suspension order by EUSD so the student could return to his studies. Our attorneys further explained the unconstitutionality of public schools restricting individuals of a particular faith from practicing their religion in violation of the First Amendment and the need to have reasonable accommodations in place for Muslim students who choose to pray when school is in session. At the conclusion of the meeting, EUSD officials agreed to overturn the suspension to expunge the incident from his record. The school further agreed to amend their formal religious accommodation policies, which was to be stated prominently on EUSD’s website for future reference and used by educators, parents, and students alike. Additionally, EUSD agreed to have CAIR-SFBA as well as Oakland Unified School District’s Office of Equity establish a series of staff trainings on Islamophobia and implicit bias towards immigrant students of color to better support the district’s AMEMSA students.
In another incident, CAIR-LA attorneys were contacted by a group of teachers who were planning to conduct training courses on Islam and the Middle East in Los Angeles and Orange County when they ran into obstacles with the Los Angeles Unified School District (“LAUSD”). The course was designed to train teaching staff on issues important to AMEMSA communities, including topics like human rights for Palestinians. This caught the attention of pro-Zionist groups, who sought to have the course banned. When the group of teachers applied for a new contract with LAUSD, they were approved by the joint committee of the school district and the teacher’s union but were blocked from final approval by the human resources department citing “safety concerns.” Working closely with the teacher’s group and other advocates, CAIR-LA ensured that the course was taught even if only online, pre-COVID-19 pandemic, and that constant pressure was applied on LAUSD’s Board of Trustees to grant the course full accreditation. As a result of this advocacy and a change in the leadership at LAUSD, the course was approved.
To supplement the direct legal services and representation provided to the community, CAIR-CA launched an educational campaign on the anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001 (“9/11”) aimed at encouraging educators to use the occasion to solemnly promote diversity, inclusivity, and mutual understanding in the classroom without furthering the marginalization of Muslim students.48 In a letter addressed to educators, CAIR-CA recommended that school administrators, district boards, and educational non-profits address the Islamophobia engendered by the events of 9/11 through a continuous, honest reckoning with explicit and implicit biases in the classroom and in the wider world.
Among the recommendations offered by CAIR-CA to educators were the following best practices:
The letter and the campaign, directed at hundreds of school districts across California, was met with great interest from district staff who have invited CAIR-CA to work closely with them in training educators and revising school curricula, where appropriate.