Maryland has established a reputation for being a relatively diverse and tolerant state. This makes reports of incidents targeting Muslim students at public schools all the more alarming.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations recently asked the principal of Parkdale High School in Riverdale to investigate complaints that a teacher made inflammatory and false anti-Muslim comments to his class last month.
Students said the teacher told his English class, “Muslims are dangerous. They are terrorists and they will kill you.”
He is said to have then warned the students against being Muslim and allegedly said of Muslim students, “You guys did 9/11.” Asked about the allegations, the teacher said that the situation was a misunderstanding and that the discussion was blown out of proportion.
Can you imagine being told as a student that you are responsible for an act of terrorism simply because you share the same religion as the perpetrators of a crime? It’s outrageous and unacceptable that anyone — much less a student — should be made to feel guilty or ashamed for heinous acts committed by criminals who claim to share their faith.
That an educator — an individual who is entrusted daily by parents and other caregivers, school administrators and children to provide a safe and judgment-free learning environment for students — would allegedly make such an inflammatory, inaccurate and offensive allegation that has the very real potential to incite further backlash against Muslim students is even greater cause for concern. And such language itself is a form of bullying.
The sad irony that this happened in October, National Bullying Prevention Month, should not be lost on us. Unfortunately, many parents and children refuse to report incidents of bullying out of fear that they or their loved ones may be targeted, ostracized and further harassed.
Studies show that children who are bullied and harassed are more likely to harm themselves or others, commit or contemplate committing suicide, drop out of school, commit crimes and be unemployed.
When children are afraid or reluctant to go to school because of the cruel behavior of their teachers or peers, we have collectively failed in our responsibility to cultivate a safe learning environment for them. This failure manifests intellectually, physically, socially, emotionally and spiritually throughout these children’s lives. It may affect them on multiple levels, and it contributes to many of the ills that plague society today.
Investing in anti-bullying initiatives and taking a firm stand to champion a safe learning environment benefits children who are victimized and collectively benefits all of us.
As a lifelong Maryland resident and a civil rights activist, I know that I reside in a state that is at the forefront of championing anti-bullying initiatives and legislation.
In 2005, Maryland enacted the Safe Schools Reporting Act. This law requires the Maryland State Department of Education to require a county board of education to document and report all incidents of harassment or intimidation against students in public schools under the county board’s jurisdiction.
But although this legislation is a significant milestone in combating bullying in schools, it alone is not enough.
We must educate students, parents, educators and school administrators on the short-term and long-term consequences of bullying. Parents and caregivers must be trained to develop open lines of communication with children in their care so they feel comfortable discussing uncomfortable issues.
Resources and funding must be made available on state and local levels to support programs and initiatives designed to raise awareness and provide solutions. The establishment of a statewide anti-bullying task force can be instrumental in promoting a safe, respectful, tolerant and inclusive culture.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations offers free basic religious competency training to educators and school administrators. The training can help dispel myths and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims that often result in the bullying of students who are — or may be perceived to be — Muslim.
We have much work to do as individuals, as a community and as a society to eradicate bullying from our schools. If our goal is to work toward a better society, we must begin by investing in the future. Children represent that future. The steps we take today to nurture that future will determine the success, vitality and promise of tomorrow.
The writer is Maryland outreach manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.