In a move hailed by civil rights groups, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) announced Sunday that he’d signed a bill meant to counter the widespread bullying of Muslim and Sikh students in the state.
The Safe Place To Learn Act requires the California Department of Education to ensure that school districts “provide information on existing school site and community resources to educate teachers, administrators, and other school staff on the support of Muslim, Sikh, and other pupils who may face anti-Muslim bias and bullying.”
According to a November 2015 report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, 55 percent of Muslim students aged 11 to 18 in California reported being bullied or discriminated against due to their faith. That’s double the national average of kids, including non-Muslims, who report being bullied at school.
Twenty-nine percent of California students who wear hijabs said they’d experienced “offensive touching or pulling of their hijab.” Ten percent said they’d been physically harmed or harassed for being Muslim. Almost 20 percent said their fellow students had made offensive comments to them online. And nearly 20 percent of students said they’d experienced discrimination from a school staff member.
“Having school site and community resources available to students experiencing bullying is a big step forward to ensuring a safer environment for our kids,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director at CAIR-Los Angeles, which co-sponsored the bill. “We welcome the support from our governor and legislators in addressing this serious issue.”
Sikh students, meanwhile, faced similar rates of bullying. A recent study conducted by the Sikh Coalition found that more than half of Sikh children in four states, including California, experience bullying at school. That number jumps to 67 percent for Sikh students who wear turbans. In Fresno, according to the study, over half of the students surveyed said school officials didn’t respond adequately to bullying incidents.
Americans of the Sikh faith ― a religion distinct from Islam ― are often the targets of anti-Muslim violence, harassment and prejudice.
“Every child has the right to a safe and nurturing learning environment,” said Harjit Kaur, community development manager for the Sikh Coalition, another co-sponsor of the legislation. “This bill provides educators, students and parents with resources to help ensure that right.”
The bullying in California of Muslim students and students perceived to be Muslim came into focus earlier this year when Bayan Zehlif, a senior about to graduate from Los Osos High School in Rancho Cucamonga, discovered that someone had changed her name to “ISIS” in the school’s yearbook. Once a popular girl’s name, “ISIS” these days is more commonly associated with the terror group that calls itself the Islamic State. It’s also become a slur commonly hurled at American Muslims.
After Zehlif spoke out about against her representation in the yearbook, she says, she was subjected to harassment and bullying.
“A poster was put up of ‘We Support Bayan,’” she said, “and it was ripped down and students started to cheer.”
The pervasiveness of anti-Muslim bullying reflects a growing wave of Islamophobic hostility and hate crimes in California and across the nation.
A report from the California State San Bernardino Center on Hate And Extremism found that anti-Muslim hate crimes increased 122 percent in California between 2014 and 2015. The same report documented at least 260 hate crimes against Muslims nationwide in 2015 ― nearly an 80 percent rise from 2014 and the highest annual number of such crimes since 2001.
The Huffington Post has recorded at least 260 instances this year of anti-Muslim violence, harassment, discrimination and political speech.
According to CAIR, the Safe Place to Learn Act is the “first and only bill directly addressing the issue of Islamophobia in California. The negative tone in our national politics has enflamed a disturbing trend of scapegoating and fear-mongering targeting American Muslims.”
The bill, which also requires the state superintendent of public instruction to publicly post anti-bullying resources related to Muslim and Sikh students, goes into effect on Jan. 1.
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