Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

'IT'S CREATING A KIND OF TOXIC LEARNING ENVIRONMENT' ; US to Track Religious Discrimination in Schools as Anti-Muslim Sentiment Grows

Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

'IT'S CREATING A KIND OF TOXIC LEARNING ENVIRONMENT' ; US to Track Religious Discrimination in Schools as Anti-Muslim Sentiment Grows

Article excerpt

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 Dec. 31, outgoing U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and current U.S. 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. …

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