As her high school debate competition ended, Hannah Shraim extended a hand to her opponents.
Then she waited.
“They were avoiding my hand at all costs,” said Shraim, a Muslim student from suburban Maryland who has worn a hijab since she was 15, describing her first brush with discrimination at school. “I could tell it was my religious orientation because they were very kind to my partner and they shook her hand.”
That moment of apparent rejection for the recent Northwest High School graduate is not unlike what many Maryland Muslim students reported in surveys this school year in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., and at a time when a U.S. presidential candidate has proposed banning Muslims from entering the country.
With the weekend’s mass shooting in Orlando — which left 49 people dead and dozens of others wounded — many worry about increased backlash, including for Muslim children in the nation’s schools. The gunman, Afghan American Omar Mateen, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State while holding hostages after his initial shooting rampage. The attack by Mateen was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
“The fallout, we’re just very, very concerned,” said the Rev. Mansfield Kaseman, the interfaith community liaison in Montgomery County, Md., who collaborated with Muslim leaders on recent surveys and brought them together with county school officials to discuss the results. “This can trigger bullying and taunting and criticism.”
There are no firm estimates showing how many students in U.S. schools are Muslim, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations — and there are no exact numbers for Montgomery County — but Muslim leaders there say their community is growing. According to the Pew Research Center, about 3.3 million Muslims of all ages lived in the United States in 2015, representing about 1 percent of the U.S. population. Pew estimates that the percentage will double by 2050.
Two recent surveys of Muslim students in the Washington region, mostly in Montgomery County, show how the turmoil of national and international events can ripple into schools. Both surveys were small — involving a total of 300 youths — but their findings have rung true to many students, educators, advocates and community leaders.
In one survey, nearly one-third of Muslim students in grades three through 12 said they had experienced insults or abuse at least once because of their faith. The survey, by the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, also found that more than 1 in 10 said they were physically harmed or harassed at least once because of their religion.
A second survey — from the International Cultural Center (ICC), in Montgomery Village, Md. — showed that many Muslim students have felt harassed, humiliated, bullied or abused by classmates during the past six months because of their Islamic faith; 10 percent felt a teacher or administrator had treated them unfairly during the past six months.
“The results are reflective of the political climate we’re in right now,” said Mehreen Farooq, senior fellow at the World Organization for Resource Development and Education, which runs the ICC. “It shows there needs to be more youth-oriented programs to provide them with coping skills so they can respond positively.”
Behind the numbers, she and others say, are stories of boys being called terrorists and girls having their hijabs torn off. During a year of high tension, family dinner-table conversations have touched on fears of violence and even the prospect of internment camps, said Nouf Bazaz, director of the ICC’s Crossroads program.
“Montgomery County is one of the most diverse counties in the country, and so the fact that it’s happening here . . . I would imagine in other parts of the country it would be similar or even potentially worse,” Bazaz said.
Montgomery school officials say the survey results are dismaying but raise awareness. Principals focus on such issues school by school, and training efforts are underway; the Montgomery school district also invests in cultural proficiency, officials said.
“Any time a student feels marginalized, that’s a concern,” said Donna Hollingshead, associate superintendent for school administration.
On Monday, a teenager at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda who wears a hijab was so distressed by the Orlando shooting she did not want to attend school, said social studies teacher Chris Murray. The teen started the day in tears, upset by what she felt were hard looks from people she encountered.
“I’ve never seen her that way before,” said Murray, who is teaching a 45-hour summer course to help improve religious literacy among teachers so that they can better support students.
Hafsa Shahzad, 15, a sophomore at Wootton High School, said the Orlando massacre felt like a major setback after the recent death of Muhammad Ali cast a positive glow on Islam. “I’m scared Islamophobia will be on the rise again,” she said.
Muslim students at several Montgomery schools said the survey results resonated, even as many said they found their own schools welcoming.
Rahma Abd el-Shafy, 17, recalled that she was surprised one day in class when a popular teacher at Wootton High described a reckless driver by mentioning she was Muslim and pointing to Abd el-Shafy’s hijab to indicate the driver was wearing one.
The teenager says she felt that all eyes were on her, associating that behavior with Islam and with her. She recalled a classmate’s adding a chilling remark about those who wear hijabs: “You never know what they have under there.”
Abd el-Shafy says she eventually worked up the nerve to talk to the teacher, and says she is glad they talked it out. “She was really understanding,” she said.
Concerned about perceptions, she and others with the Muslim Student Association at Wootton conducted a survey in April of 300 classmates of all faiths. They found that 10 percent reported a belief that Islam promotes violence, and 5 percent said they did not trust Muslims, results they said were better than they had imagined.
“We were encouraged that there seem to be large numbers of students who seem to have positive perceptions,” said teacher Amani Elkassabany, the group’s sponsor.
Other Muslim students spoke about the responsibility they feel to be stellar examples of good citizenship — and to speak up after terrorist attacks that involve people professing to be Muslims — so that there is no mistake about where they stand.
“Sometimes you feel like everybody is waiting for your explanation,” said Alaa Muhtaseb, 18, who graduated last week from Clarksburg High School. “If I did not explain, they would think I agree with it.” But she questions why she needs to explain: “They should know this isn’t Islam.”
At Northwest High School, Shraim says it has helped to be part of her school’s Muslim Student Association.
Shraim — senior class president before graduating last week — said she is comfortable standing up to bias. The day two years ago when she encountered students who did not want to shake her hand after the debate, Shraim kept her hand outstretched. Finally, she said, one of her opponents brushed a hand lightly against hers. So did the other.
“When I go through stuff like that, it just makes me want to push harder and prove that the types of things they are thinking about Muslims are false,” she said, “and they should look at it in a positive way and look at us as peaceful people.”
Emma Brown contributed to this report.