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Protecting Our Muslim Youth from Bullying: the Role of the Educator

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Not since the days and months immediately after September 11 has the Muslim community faced the level of anti-Muslim bias and bullying that has been seen over the past several months. In the wake of Paris and other terrorist attacks, combined with the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a lack of information among the public about Islam, and the tendency to associate  Islam with terrorism, there has been an increase in expressions and incidents targeting the Muslim community and those who are perceived to be Muslim, such as members of the Sikh community. There has also been an increased wave of anti-Muslim sentiment in our public discourse, political rhetoric and everyday interactions.  Schools have not been immune. Youth have been called, “terrorists” or “ISIS.” There have been physical attacks, verbal threats, and social isolation. These are just a few of the many ways anti-Muslim sentiment has impacted schoolchildren who are Muslim or perceived to be Muslim.

As a result of bullying and harassment, students may feel threatened, frightened, and disconnected from school. Their academic performance may suffer. Across the country, all parents need to talk with their kids and educate them on how they can prevent bullying. Parents should try hard to help their children appreciate their peers and make friends across different cultures.

Educators have an important role to play as well. Classrooms and schools should provide learning environments that are not only free from discrimination and harassment based on protected traits—including religion—but should also be conduits for students to build bridges with other students across different backgrounds, break down stereotypes, acknowledge and affirm important aspects of their identity, and learn how to be an ally when faced with bullying and bias.

Here are a few important anti-bias and bullying prevention strategies that teachers can use to address anti-Muslim sentiment:

  • Create an anti-bias learning environment. This means incorporating the experiences, perspective and words of Muslim people into the curriculum through social studies and current events instruction, children’s literature , in order to learn about different cultures. When you teach about world religions, be sure to include Islam. When slurs and insults are directed at specific students, intervene quickly and directly. Further, present yourself as approachable so that when incidents of bias or bullying arise inside or outside the classroom walls, students feel comfortable talking with you about it. It’s also important to be aware that some Muslim students may feel relieved and comfortable discussing these issues in class and others may feel nervous, scared or angry to be talking about a topic so close to home.
  • Teach students about stereotypes, bias, and discrimination. This should happen proactively before any incidents—anti-Muslim or otherwise—occur so that young people understand the language of bias and the distinction between different concepts. Use current events—many of which are ripe with examples of bias and injustice, to help students understand real-world incidents and discuss what actions they could take to make a difference. Develop students’ ability to challenge biased language, especially jokes and slurs. Deconstructing bias and stereotypes will help students reflect on their origins and will ultimately help build empathy among young people.
  • Encourage students to learn how to be an ally when faced with bias or bullying.  Adults are often not around when these incidents occur; give students the skills to do something.  Help students expand their understanding of what ally behavior is and encourage them to move from being bystanders to acting as allies. Contrary to the popular notion that “standing up” is the only way to be an ally, there are several less threatening and still effective ways to be an ally including: not participating, supporting the student being bullied, getting to know people instead of judging, and more. In addition, share inspiring examples like Walk a Mile in Her Hijab, whose goal is to spread awareness about Muslim cultural traditions and to combat anti-Muslim bias.

Educators play a vital role in fostering safe, welcoming learning communities for their students and, given the unsettling rise in anti-Muslim prejudice, the efforts teachers make to support all of their students and build understanding and respect are more critical than ever.

For more information and Federal guidance on schools’ obligations to respond to harassment, please see the following: