The U.S. Education Department announced it will begin collecting data this year about allegations of discrimination or bullying of students based on their religion, bringing new attention to what educators and advocates call a growing problem in public schools, particularly for Muslim students.
Catherine E. Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said the department plans to work with schools and communities to promote inclusive school environments for everyone.
“Students of all religions should feel safe, welcome and valued in our nation’s schools,” she said in an announcement.
The news was welcomed by Muslim advocates. Terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernadino, and Orlando by individuals who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State, and a presidential candidate who has proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the country have fueled a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment.
Frightening headlines and rhetoric on the campaign trial are seeping into school lunch rooms and hallways and being felt by Muslim children, advocates said.
“Everything from being called ‘terrorist’ to jokes about ‘Where is your bomb?’ Obviously, they are not really jokes,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“It is creating a kind of toxic learning environment in which these students feel like they are under attack because of their faith,” he said.
On December 31, outgoing US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and current US Education Secretary John B. King Jr. sent a joint letter to school leaders across the country enlisting their help to protect against discrimination and harassment of students based on their race or national origin and religion.
The letter said that historic levels of refugees fleeing violence in Syria and other international and domestic events are creating “an urgent need for safe spaces for students.”
It said students “especially at risk of harassment” include those “who are, or are perceived to be, Syrian, Muslim, Middle Eastern, or Arab, as well as those who are Sikh, Jewish, or students of color.”
The letter said educators have a chance to make a “real difference” in the way communities respond to these events, and it encouraged them to help “students grapple with current events and conflicting viewpoints in constructive ways, and not in ways that result in the targeting of particular students for harassment or blame.”
The department’s Office of Civil Rights enforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs receiving federal funding. Discrimination based on religion is included when it is related to someone’s actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.
Last year the office received more than 10,000 complaints of alleged discrimination, including some relating to religion. Those cases were typically not reported separately, as they will be in the future.
In districts found to have hostile environments, federal officials helped to improve harassment policies, training, and school climate surveys.
A better understanding of the prevalence of religious discrimination will help policy makers and educators understand the scope of the problem and protect more students, educators say.
The California Chapter of CAIR found in a 2014 survey of youth that more than half — or 55 percent — of American Muslim students surveyed reported experiencing some form of bullying based on their religious identity while at school.
Zahra, a 17-year old college freshman at Montgomery College, who gave her first name only because of fear of anti-Muslim sentiment, recalled what it felt like when she was a new immigrant to the United States, starting middle school outside of Dallas.
She recalled that she or family members were called her names. In the seventh grade, when she started wearing the hijab, one girl that she considered a friend stopped talking to her at school. Her school bus driver called her a “terrorist.” For a while she stopped wearing it.
“I wanted to not go to school. I would rather be home-schooled,” She said. “It was terrible for me.”
As she got older, she said, teasing or taunts bothered her less. And when she decided to wear the hijab, she did it because she felt proud to wear it.
Now she wants to educate people about Islam.
“People are ignorant, that is why they are fearful,” she said.