When Children are Scapegoats

March 24, 2016

With the nation erupting in anti-Muslim sentiment following terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, and presidential candidates making incendiary statements about Muslims, Anita Sharif-Hyder, a Muslim-American parent in Connecticut, was concerned for her children’s safety. So she decided to keep them home from religious school. 

She wasn’t the only one. Muslim students at public schools in Connecticut faced frightening taunts and “jokes”: “Go back where you came from”; “Are you like them?”; “Don’t blow up my house!” Many of their parents kept them home, too.

Superintendents in the state knew they needed to do something—fast—to understand Muslim culture and help Muslim families feel secure.

They turned to ADL’s Connecticut office, which organized “Creating Positive Engagement with Muslim Students and Families,” a conference about Muslim culture and experiences hosted by the Connecticut Association of Schools and co-sponsored by the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents and the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

“In the aftermath of Paris and San Bernardino, and the recent terror attacks in  Ankara and Brussels, people are understandably afraid,” said ADL Connecticut Senior Associate Director Marji Lipshez-Shapiro. “However, that fear has manifested itself as open bigotry towards our Muslim neighbors. No one should be afraid to send their child to school because of their race or religion. We must build bridges between our communities, not walls.”

By the end of January, 60 administrators, superintendents, teachers, board of education members, community leaders and a representative from the U.S. Attorney’s office gathered to hear ADL staff and Muslim-American friends of ADL give a series of eye-opening presentations. Shazia Chaudhry and Dr. Saud Anwar discussed myths and facts about Islam and Muslim Americans, taught basic tenets of the Muslim faith and challenged the group with real-life case studies of Muslim-American students who were treated disrespectfully in local schools.

One example: an athletic coach who expected a Muslim-American student to stay hydrated and compete during the fasting month of Ramadan.

Laura Rodriguez, house principal at Hamden High School and Secretary/Treasurer of the Connecticut Federation of School Administrators, already knew much of the material, but was shocked at how many didn’t. “I was discouraged to say there were lots of people in the room who couldn’t understand how you could be Muslim and patriotic to the U.S.,” she said. “They were also flabbergasted by the case studies. They were shaking their heads, ‘No, this isn’t possible.’ But I’ve dealt with these situations—one of them happened in my own school.”

The meeting shifted palpably when two Muslim-American college students shared heartwarming stories about how they’d been bullied about their religion for years until ADL stepped in. Ms. Lipshez-Shapiro personally helped one of the women regain her self-esteem and brought ADL’s acclaimed A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE® Institute (AWOD) to the second woman’s school, quickly improving the climate. Today the women are honors students and leaders who have made it their mission to dispel misconceptions about their culture. Teary administrators gave them a standing ovation.

As the day progressed, participants grew eager to know what they could do to make their schools more inclusive and welcoming to Muslim Americans. Among the suggestions: hire more diverse staff. Exempt students from sports during the fasting month of Ramadan. Publish a schedule of religious holidays for all faiths. Invite a few Muslim families to serve as point people who can serve as advocates and representatives for their community.

More impact seems sure to follow. Participants took home ADL lesson plans on anti-Muslim bigotry. Ms. Rodriguez’s school is having ADL deliver an AWOD program that will begin by addressing ant-Muslim bias. Perhaps most important,  Ms. Lipshez-Shapiro was asked to replicate the Creating Positive Engagement conference for the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, in May.

“This is a true testament that change and understanding can happen,” Ms. Sharif-Hyder said. “When you have real people from the community share their experiences, and when teachers are advocates for diversity and inclusion, that can make all the difference.”

Highlights of conference about Muslim culture and experiences organized by ADL Connecticut and hosted by the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

Credit: Karen Packtor, Connecticut Association of Schools