Civil Rights Report 2017: Islamophobia in Educational Institutions

The Impact of Islamophobia in Educational Institutions

Discrimination and bullying targeting Muslim students is a growing problem reflective of the broader social and political environment in which anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobia is increasingly common and accepted. This public Othering of Muslims has consequently created school cultures in which demonstrated anti-Muslim bias from student peers, educators, and administrative officials is heightened and often ignored.

It is important to remember that students often do not report bullying, harassment, or discrimination for a number of reasons. Students may be afraid to tell their parents or other adults for fear of recrimination from peers. Many students consider the antagonistic behavior to be “normal.” Students who have been bullied may suffer long-term consequences, such as an increased risk of depression, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, decreased academic achievement, and poor school adjustment.

Anti-Muslim Incidents

In 2016, CAIR recorded 209 incidents of anti-Muslim bias, including harassment, intimidation, and violence, targeting students.

According to a 2015 report published by CAIR California, 55 percent of Muslim students aged eleven to eighteen reported being subject to some form of bullying due to their faith. That is twice the national rate of all students who report being bullied at school.

Following Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, a number of direct attacks on students, ranging from verbal harassment to physical violence, were recorded. Especially pronounced were incidents where female students who wear headscarves were targeted. In the week immediately succeeding the election, CAIR recorded 17 incidents of female students being threatened, attacked, and their religious attire touched, pulled, or forcibly removed at a school or on a college campus.

In one case, the day after the presidential election, a high school student in Los Angeles was approached by a male student who grabbed her hair and attempted to rip off her headscarf. The attacker said, “You shouldn’t be wearing that, you towelhead. You’re not American. This isn’t America. This isn’t what America stands for.”

Earlier in the year in May, a student left her dorm in Michigan to go for a run and was accosted by five male students. When she attempted to run away from the group, they surrounded her and took turns shoving and verbally harassing her. Her assailants screamed racial and religious slurs, including, “Arab go back to your country, you don’t belong here.”

Discrimination from Educators and Administrators

In addition to bullying by students, the number of religion-based bias incidents involving discriminatory behavior from educators and administrative officials is concerning. As individuals with authority, their anti-Muslim bias and behavior not only sets an improper model for other students, but marginalizes Muslim students academically and deprives them of opportunities to develop the skills and self-assurance necessary for success. It can also lead to a failure to respond to Muslim student complaints of bullying or inappropriate behavior. Public schools in particular have an obligation to protect all students and ensure that they receive an equal educational experience irrespective of religion, race, or gender.

In one case, an Arizona teacher snapped at a Muslim student in front of the class when he raised his hand to answer a question and said, “All you Muslims think you are so smart.” She proceeded to rant and, referring to the fact that the student and his family were resettled refugees, said, “I can’t wait until Trump is elected. He’s going to deport all you Muslims. Muslims shouldn’t be given visas. They’ll probably take away your visa and deport you. You’re going to be the next terrorist, I bet.” On his way home in the bus, his fellow classmates mocked him and made similar anti-Muslim comments. They taunted that his visa would be revoked, called him a “terrorist,” and accused him of planning to blow up the bus.

In another incident in North Carolina, a teacher allegedly grabbed a five-year-old student by the neck and began to strangle him. Prior to this, the boy had switched classrooms after his mother had met with the principal and guidance counselor regarding the teacher’s treatment of her son. The teacher routinely singled him out from his classmates, reportedly called him a “bad Muslim boy,” and required him to carry a heavy backpack throughout the day, which caused the child to develop back pain.

Anti-Muslim Vandalism

The expression of anti-Muslim sentiment through direct targeting of Muslim students by other students, educators, and administrative officials has also been accompanied by acts of anonymous harassment, intimidation, and vandalism. In 2016, at least nine educational institutions were subject to anti-Muslim vandalism, and a number of university campuses, including the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, had the phrase “Stop Islam” written in graffiti on walls and walkways.

Following President-Elect Donald Trump’s win, Muslim students at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering found “TRUMP” scrawled on the door to their prayer room. A stall in the women’s restroom at the State University of New York at New Paltz was defaced with racist and anti-Muslim statements, including “ISIS is calling, Muslims can leave.”

Positive Steps

In response to the alarming increase in anti-Muslim bias incidents targeting students, a number of school departments, boards, and districts have issued strong statements and taken steps to push back against hate speech, intimidation, and violence. The US Department of Education issued a letter outlining a series of actions it would undertake to confront discrimination and promote inclusive school environments. This included the creation of a new website on religious discrimination which would provide information about federal laws protecting students, an updated civil rights complaint form, an expanded survey of America’s public schools on religious-based bullying, and outreach on confronting religious harassment in education.

The Modern Language Association’s Executive Council similarly issued a statement against anti-Muslim bias which stated that “The MLA condemns any and all violations of free speech and academic freedom, including those based on race, religious affiliation and ethnicity. We especially deplore the firings and intimidation of those teachers who aid in our understanding of Islam.”

Local school boards have also taken action to address Islamophobia: board members of the San Diego Unified District voted unanimously in favor of a plan to address Islamophobia and the bullying of Muslim students, and in Missouri, the Kansas City Public School board approved a resolution which condemned violence and hate speech and expressed support for Muslim students.

Taking an exemplary step forward, California governor Jerry Brown signed “The Safe Place to Learn Act” on September 25, 2016. This legislation requires that the state’s Department of Education ensure that school districts “provide information on existing school site and community resources to educate teachers, administrators, and other school staff on the support of Muslim, Sikh, and other pupils who may face anti-Muslim bias and bullying.”


School Administrators
  • Train all staff to establish a welcoming school climate that is supportive of and responsive to all students, regardless of their background. Ensure that all staff make certain that their words and behavior are inclusive.

  • Train teachers on how to prevent bullying and harassment in their classrooms, and how to adequately respond if bullying does occur.

  • Ensure that teachers receive professional training which increases an awareness of Islam, Muslims, and the needs of Muslim students in collaboration with local Muslim community-based organizations and other relevant agencies.

  • Train educators in how to teach in classrooms with students from a variety of backgrounds so they can create a non-biased, inclusive learning environment for all students. It is important that educators be familiar with the various religious, racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender identities of their students, otherwise they risk marginalizing them.

  • Support teachers in their efforts to develop a culturally sensitive classroom.

  • Establish comprehensive schoolwide programs to address bullying prevention, diversity, and cultural awareness, and teach students how and when to be an ally when other students are faced with bias or bullying.

  • Create and publicize precise policy on discrimination and harassment which contain clear procedures to report bullying that are consistent with state and federal law, and ensure that all students and their parents are familiar with the policy. Schools must be ready to provide translation services if and when required.

  • Involve parents in parent-teacher organizations, school boards, and district-wide committees, and use these opportunities to develop relationships with them and learn about cultural and religious differences.

K-12 Educators
  • Teach students about the negative impact of stereotypes, bias, and discrimination and develop students’ ability to challenge biased language, including jokes and slurs. Deconstructing bias and stereotypes will help students reflect on their experiences and ultimately help to build empathy among one another.

  • Intervene directly when bullying occurs. Educators should convey to at-risk students that they are serious about preventing bullying and are approachable so that when incidents of bias occur, students are comfortable approaching them.

  • Ensure that material discussing Islam and Muslims is current and free of Islamophobic bias. Specific care should be taken to differentiate between religious practices and the cultural norms or practices of Muslim societies. Classroom materials which fail to distinguish between the two create misperceptions about Muslims and provide inaccurate representations of Islam.

  • Avoid framing contemporary geopolitical conflicts as timeless or as a civilizational clash, which is an ahistorical approach and does disservice to the complex histories and diverse national, ethnic, and political identities of Muslims.

  • Avoid teaching about Muslims only in the context of terrorism, which serves to stereotype them as only relevant in relation to violence.

  • Avoid putting Muslim students in the spotlight by asking them to speak authoritatively on Islam or issues relating to Muslims when they are not equipped to do so. In addition, they should not be made to feel as though they are answerable for the actions of all Muslims.

  • Teach children what to do if they are bullied, and foster relationships of trust with them so that children feel comfortable informing them of any bullying incidents.

  • Understand that it is neither a child’s fault if they are bullied nor should it be considered a natural part of growing up. Parents should ensure that their children understand this as well.

  • Be vigilant in looking for signs of bullying and harassment. Signs can include physical manifestations or subtle changes in behavior.

  • Assert their children’s right to learn in a bias-free and secure environment.

  • Avail themselves of the stated procedure to make complaints and then follow up to ensure a response from the school. If the bullying does not stop, parents should go up the chain of command at the school and in the district. They should also report any instances of bullying and discriminatory harassment to their local CAIR office. If necessary, parents can draft a letter to the state superintendent who is legally obliged under Title VI to prohibit discrimination.

  • Ensure that their children receive the psychological support they need if they are bullied, such as seeing a school counselor.

  • Volunteer and participate in school activities, parent-teacher organizations, school boards, and district-wide committees. These opportunities enable parents to develop relationships and understanding with other parents, teachers, and administrators and have an impact on school culture. Such collaboration between parents and school administration can also create opportunities for suggesting ideas, research, and professional training for teachers and administrators.

  • Amend Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Currently, Title VI does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion. Although the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has offered guidance to support the position that Title VI does apply to religious discrimination and harassment in a “Dear Colleague” letter, their ability to enforce the jurisdiction through the prohibition against national origin discrimination, and the extent of this protection, is weak and insufficient.. Amending Title VI would directly allow the Department of Education to ensure that schools receiving federal funding would be answerable if they fail to prevent bullying and harassment based on religion.

State and Federal Government
  • Create a guide for navigating federal mental health and education resources for Muslim, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and other at-risk students.

  • Provide additional resources to implement bullying prevention programs and mental health programs in schools.

  • Hold school boards responsible for maintaining a safe and discrimination-free learning environment.

Community Organizers
  • Reach out to schools through activities such as teacher appreciation banquets and guest speakers.

  • Encourage schools to utilize local Muslim resources when appropriate if teaching about world religions or cultures.

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[Note: For references, access the full report]