Dapinder Ahluwalia’s 14-year-old son starts high school next month. Like many parents, she’ll spend the last days of summer ensuring he has the right school supplies and a copy of his class schedule.
Unlike other moms and dads, she’ll also print write-ups for teachers and school leaders that explain the family’s faith. Ahluwalia and her son are Sikh, and confusion about their religion has led to bullying in the past.
“It started as early as grade one or two. His classmates would tease him about his turban and his long hair, calling him a girl and saying he shouldn’t go to the boy’s bathroom, or threatening to cut off his hair in crafts class,” she said.
Her son’s experience is shared by many students who belong to minority religions. More than half of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu children have faced faith-based bullying at school, according to advocacy organizations associated with these religions.
Religious discrimination also affects children from larger religious groups. For example, conservative Christians might be kept from sharing what their faith teaches on same-sex marriage during a classroom debate.
Before the start of the 2016-17 school year, the U.S. Department of Education recently announced its latest efforts to end religious discrimination in public schools across the country. Officials have launched a new website designed to help families understand their students’ legal rights and an updated online complaint form. Also, for the first time, the government will begin collecting data on faith-based harassment from U.S. public schools.
“This is a very large concern for too many families in too many places,” said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the DOE.
Scholars who’ve studied religious discrimination applaud these efforts, noting education officials, school leaders and teachers need to do more to help students embrace religious difference. However, parents remain essential to ending faith-based bullying, whether their child is the bully or the bullied.
“Parents know from their own experiences that children have questions about religion and religious belief,” said Mark Fowler, deputy chief executive officer of Tanenbaum, a nonprofit organization that combats religious discrimination in schools, the health care industry and the workplace. “We want to present (religious) information to (students) in a way that’s responsible, nonjudgmental and non-stereotypical.”
Students must learn to respond to a classmate’s turban or cross necklace with curiosity rather than unkind words, he added.
“We’re not just talking about a soft skill. We’re talking about preparing young people for college and for careers in a 21st century environment that is multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religion,” Fowler said.
Sources of discrimination
Faith-based bullying is a difficult issue to address because it stems from many sources, including home life, religious communities and current events.
Kids who call their classmates names, accusing a Sikh of being a terrorist or referring to a Muslim as “Osama,” might be repeating something they heard at home or in church, Fowler said.
He and other Tanenbaum representatives once held a training at a school that was having problems with religious discrimination. When his team read out examples of faith-related taunts exchanged between students, one participant realized one of the cruel statements had come from him and been repeated by his child.
“One parent raised his hand and said, ‘We have to be careful about things we say around our children in anger because they don’t know the difference between a moment that we’re having and a firm belief,'” Fowler noted.
Faith-based bullying can also stem from major world events, such as terrorist attacks, said Heba Abdelmaksoud, who is Muslim. Soon after 9/11, she remembers her older son, Ali, coming home from elementary school crying because of a heartbreaking exchange on the school bus.
Some classmates “told him and (a) Palestinian kid that they should get out of the bus,” said Abdelmaksoud, who is Egyptian.
She explained to her young boys, who are both now in their 20s, that they had to be patient, telling their classmates, like all Americans, they were sad about the 9/11 attacks.
“Unfortunately, when things like that happen, most people generalize. They think, ‘If a Muslim did this, all Muslims are bad,'” Abdelmaksoud said. “I told them, ‘You didn’t do anything wrong.'”
Another source of bullying is confusion about a religious group’s traditions, Ahluwalia said, as she explained why she provides write-ups about Sikhism to teachers. Most members of the Sikh faith never cut their hair and, from a young age, boys wear a smaller version of the turban worn by Sikh men. Ahluwalia’s son has worn a rectangular piece of fabric tied to his topknot since he was 3.
Ahluwalia was prepared for minor bullying episodes. After all, her son’s turban made him different, and young children often pick on anyone who stands out.
While he was in elementary school, each new year seemed to bring more tears and frustration. Ahluwalia pulled her son out of his private elementary school at the end of fifth grade and moved him to a public school. They ended up moving to a new state before he finished sixth grade, because ongoing bullying made Ahluwalia long to be somewhere with a larger Sikh population.
“I had to be strong for him and not distressed in front of him, but I had sleepless nights,” she said. She asked not to share her family’s location to protect her son’s anonymity.
Missteps by school leaders and teachers can make bullying worse, particularly when students recognize they can get away with bad behavior, Ahluwalia said. Her son’s bullying struggles only ended when the principal at his middle school laid down the law.
“I got an official call from the principal, and the incident went into the files of the four kids who (bullied) him,” she said.
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