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 faiths. More than half of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu children have faced bullying at school because of their religion, according to advocacy organizations associated with these faiths.
Religious discrimination also affects children from larger religious groups. For example, conservative Christians might be forbidden to share 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 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 updated an online complaint form.
Also, for the first time, the government will begin collecting data on religion-related harassment in 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 have studied religious discrimination applaud educators’ efforts to help students embrace religious differences. But parents, they say, remain essential to ending such 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. He advises answering these questions in a way that is “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 said.
“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.”
Sources of discrimination
Bullying that targets children because of their religion 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 said.
Religion-related 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 in tears because of a cruel taunt on the school bus.
Some classmates “told him and (a) Palestinian child 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, that 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 Sikhs do not 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 head covering made him different, and young children often pick on anyone who stands out.
But 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.
Key steps for parents
By collecting national data on religious discrimination, the DOE hopes to learn more about religion-related harassment, so officials can better craft strategies to curtail it.
“We need to know what students’ experiences are in school so that we’re shining a spotlight on injury and making sure that all of us who care can be arm-in-arm, making sure schools are safe and appropriate spaces for all learners,” Lhamon said.
Meanwhile, parents can take steps this school year to prevent such discrimination and bullying.
First, they can be aware of their students’ rights, and be prepared to talk to teachers, principals, the school board and even government officials if religion-related harassment is not being effectively resolved.
“They can come to us. They can advocate for themselves at school and ask their schools to step in,” Lhamon said.
Like Ahluwalia, parents can also meet with teachers early in the year to explain their concerns and share information about their faith.
“Some teachers have been very ignorant,” Ahluwalia said, noting it’s better for a teacher to be a first defense against misconceptions and stereotypes.
Additionally, parents can volunteer to make presentations about their religion in their children’s schools. They can explain special eating habits and clothing choices, as well as ensure lines of communication are open between them and their children’s teachers, Abdelmaksoud said.
“I used to go during Ramadan” to talk about the annual month of fasting and other aspects of Islam, she said.
Both Abdelmaksoud and Ahluwalia also emphasized the value of building a community of other parents to draw on for support.
By moving, Ahluwalia was able to be more involved in a Sikh community. Her son made new friends, and she had new people to call on if she had a question or concern.
“The community gave us so much love,” she said.
Most importantly, parents should talk to their kids regularly about religious discrimination and encourage them to share anything that’s bothering them.
“I kept talking to them every night, and I’m blessed. They have good characters,” Abdelmaksoud said. “But they went through a lot.”
Character and curiosity
In conversations with her sons about religion-related bullying, Abdelmaksoud didn’t shy away from telling them they were different. They were Muslim and the sons of Egyptian immigrants. The family spoke Arabic at home.
“I wanted them to be proud. They have their identity, and it’s OK to be a minority,” she said.
Abdelmaksoud hated hearing about mean words that caused pain, but she also didn’t want her sons to think they had to hide who they were to be safe. She’s happy they grew to embrace both American and Egyptian cultures.
“Even now, when they are surrounded by friends and call me on the phone, they speak in Arabic. Their friends think it’s fun to hear them speak,” Abdelmaksoud said. “They are proud. They’re not trying to hide.”
Charles Haynes, an expert on religious expression and education in public schools, said embracing difference is important. Too often, efforts to minimize religious discrimination teach kids that everyone’s the same, rather than helping them understand why uniqueness is valuable.
“This is America. We have a tremendous diversity of views, religious and otherwise. We want students to know that they are free to express these views and that schools are where they learn to engage one another with respect and civility,” he said.
He worries children from socially conservative faith communities are suffering in schools today, as their ideas about marriage and sexual identity issues become less popular.
“Religious discrimination discussions usually focus on harassment of Muslim kids or Sikh kids because of their appearance, their dress and factors like that. But what’s sometimes overlooked are the kids who feel isolated or feel shut down because they have unpopular religious views,” Haynes said.
No student should have the right to directly attack a classmate, but everyone should be comfortable bringing their beliefs to a conversation, he added.
“Calling people names is not appropriate,” Haynes said. “Expressing a religious view that may not be popular should be protected speech.”
All parents, even those raising kids in a majority faith group, should help their children understand how to be a good citizen of their school, because learning how to respect others is as important as math and reading, he added.
When Ahluwalia first enrolled her son in public school in 2013, she lost sleep. She was overwhelmed by the bullying he’d experienced in the past, which she knew was complicating his relationship to his faith.
“He came home from summer camp and said, ‘I want to cut my hair,'” Ahluwalia remembered.
They persevered through the rough patch together and they’ve strengthened their ties to each other, the community and their faith. Ahluwalia’s son is no longer the only person at his school to wear a turban, and he likes talking about being Sikh.
“He’s said, ‘Mom, you know, I explained this to so-and-so. He was so curious and it was nice,'” Ahluwalia said.
She looks toward the new school year with optimism, rather than fear. Her son, with the support of friends and school leaders, can finally be himself.
“He grew up and found a way to educate the students who say things to him,” Ahluwalia said.
(Kelsey Dallas writes about religion for the Deseret News)