“Someone asked me if I was going to blow up the school and if I was reading a book on bombs.”
“People made fun of my religion and my name. I would go home and tell my mom and cry in my room.”
“I have had my hijab pulled off by a classmate for no reason.”
Bullying against Muslim students is happening all across this country. It is real, it is ugly, and it is happening way more often than you might think. According to a 2020 survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, 51 percent of Muslim families reported that their child had been bullied because of their faith. And 56 percent of Muslim students feel unsafe, unwelcome, or uncomfortable in school. If we learned anything in teacher college, it’s that students who don’t feel safe at school can’t learn. And we know from long experience the negative effects of bullying on mental health and overall well-being.
So what can we do about it? We can teach lessons on racism. We can make sure all students see themselves reflected in books and materials. And perhaps most important, we can respond in the moment to bullying. Unfortunately, many of us feel unsure about how to intervene when that bullying is about someone’s identity. So we worked with the folks at ING to give you the words. ING developed a free digital presentation for teachers on “Countering Islamophobia in Education” that discusses Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism and its roots, its impact on Muslim students and their families, and ways to counter it.
Consider the following bullying situations and practice your responses so that you’re ready to tackle them head on if and when they happen in your own school:
Bullying Situation #1: A fifth grader calls a Muslim classmate a “terrorist.”
Your Response: First and most important, you need to stop the behavior. Say, “This kind of name-calling is verbal bullying, and it is unacceptable behavior.” Ensure that the student who was targeted is in a safe space away from the bully. Then ask them how they would best feel supported, such as by talking to their parent, friend, sibling, or a counselor. If this is a first-time offense for the student who is bullying, you may need to do some education around why this comment is hurtful and unacceptable. Consider using restorative justice practices to attempt to repair the harm, which would include an apology.
Bullying Situation #2: A staff member tells a high school student to take off her hijab because it’s a dress code violation.
Your Response: It may feel uncomfortable, but you need to step in and ensure that the student is not forced to remove her headscarf. You should reassure the student that she can keep it on and that you will clarify with the staff member that it is her right to wear religious clothing at school. After the student has left, stay back to talk with the staff member. Try saying, “I know you’re just trying to enforce the dress code, but I wanted to make sure you knew that students have the right to wear a hijab under federal law.” If you don’t get a satisfactory response, you may want to escalate the issue to admin. Not only is it detrimental to the student, it’s also a liability for the school.
Bullying Situation #3: A group of junior high students spreads a rumor on social media that a Muslim classmate is a member of ISIS.
Your Response: Pull together the students who took part in spreading the rumor. Do not involve the targeted student as you don’t want them to feel like they hold any responsibility for what happened. Try to find out the source of the rumor and the reason for starting such a rumor. Then make sure that everyone involved understands the impact of such a rumor and that anyone who passed along the rumor knows they were part of the cyberbullying (sometimes kids don’t think they’re part of the problem if they didn’t start it).
Ask, “Do you know what ISIS is?” If the answer is yes, then they know why the behavior isn’t OK. If it’s no, then it’s a teachable moment for you to explain to the students what ISIS is and that they should avoid using terms unless they know their meaning as they can be insulting or stereotypical. Additionally, consider holding a school assembly that addresses these issues, including the impact of cyberbullying and the consequences of participating in such actions for all involved, including bystanders.
Bullying Situation #4: Another teacher calls a student Joseph, instead of his given name of Yusuf.
Your Response: Approach the teacher in private and discuss the importance of using a student’s correct name. Since all of us want to be seen and respected for who we are, saying our names the right way is part of that. This kind of substitution happens often in schools, but it’s not OK (it could even be a microaggression!). Try saying, “I noticed you’re having trouble with Yusuf’s name. Names are super important. Can I help you get the pronunciation down?” Additionally, it’s important to ask a student their preference on what name they want to go by; some students may want to go by an anglicized version of their name.
Bullying Situation #5: A second grade student asks a Muslim classmate, “Why do you people hate us?”
Your Response: Reassure the targeted student that you know that’s not true. Ask the other student, “What makes you say that?” With young students, they are very likely repeating something they hear at home. Explain to the student who asked the question that it isn’t fair to talk about an entire group of people in such a negative way and ask them how they might feel if another student asked them that question about people in their community. Then emphasize that at your school, all students are expected to be respectful of each other’s identities and beliefs. And, honestly, second grade isn’t too early for a lesson on stereotypes.