In January, 15-year-old Ihab called his mother and pleaded for her to pick him up from school early.
“I don’t feel safe,” the ninth grader, whom HuffPost is calling by his first name to protect his safety, told his mom, Fouzia Safadi.
Safadi rushed to Cambridge-South Dorchester High School in Maryland to find out what was wrong. There, she saw something alarming: finger marks on Ihab’s face and neck. A fellow student had smacked him across the face.
For months, Safadi’s son not only endured physical violence by bullies at his school but abuse of a more specific kind, based on his religion and ethnicity. Fellow students called Ihab a member of ISIS and a suicide bomber, Safadi said. Some students even threatened to kill him, she said.
Ihab is just one of many Muslim students across the country who have reported being the target of anti-Muslim bullying in American schools. Schools have a responsibility to stop it, experts say. But in Ihab’s case, his mother said officials failed him.
Safadi, who is a single mother of three, accused school officials at this Maryland school of failing to protect her son from severe Islamophobic and racist bullying he faced during the 2018 to 2019 academic school year. She said the school did not inform her every time her son complained about being bullied and that the issue was only addressed when it turned violent.
The school district disputes her claims. A spokesperson for Dorchester County Public Schools told HuffPost that it had “thoroughly investigated” the allegations of bullying against Ihab, “and it was determined that no bullying occurred.” The spokesman later told HuffPost they were unable to comment due to concerns of student privacy in cases where more than one child is involved.
But Safadi has witnessed a change in her son and believes he has been bullied. Ihab is suffering from mental health issues due to the bullying and subsequently started to see a mental health counselor once a week, Safadi said.
Safadi described her eldest son as a former cheerful and outgoing teen whose life has turned upside down due to the unaddressed bullying. Ihab has become reserved and quiet. He rarely wants to leave his house, especially to go to school. Ihab is now ashamed of being Muslim because of the bullying, Safadi said.
“It’s so hard to see him like this,” Safadi said. “He was never like this. Never.”
Anti-Muslim Bullying On The Rise
Nationwide, Muslim students are four times more likely to report being bullied at school compared to the general student population, according to a 2017 report by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a Washington, D.C., think tank that researches issues that affect American Muslims.
During the first half of 2019, the Council on American-Islamic Relations documented 52 incidents of anti-Muslim bullying, making that at least eight incidents a month. More than half of those incidents involved students bullying other students. Others involved teachers and other school staff members bullying students, according to CAIR. In 2018, CAIR received nearly 100 bullying complaints, with 55 of them those were peer to peer.
Bullying can do immense harm to children. It can result in a storm of negative emotions such as evoking shame, self-hatred and loneliness, and “can be extremely damaging to the well-being of a developing child,” according to a 2018 report from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Young people who were harassed due to being part of a minority group were more likely to suffer from higher levels of mental health issues.
Bullying against religious minorities, in particular, is on the rise, said Nadia Ansary, an associate professor at Rider University who focuses on discrimination against religious minorities and its psychological impact on adolescents and is the co-author of the ISPU anti-bullying report.
“When a person is targeted because of an essential part of their identity, the impact is severe,” Ansary told HuffPost. “What happens is that we see impacts on self-esteem, risk for anxiety and risk for depression.”
Ansary emphasized the need to see bullying more than just a one-off or an “isolated incident.” Bullied adolescents face long-term consequences such as living in constant fear of being targeted beyond school because of their identity. This psychological trauma then results in children being ashamed or wanting to hide their religious, sexual or ethnic identity.
That means schools, which are often the site of bullying, have a special obligation to take the matter seriously.
“Every child and teen deserves a learning environment where they feel safe,” Zainab Chaudry, the director of Maryland outreach at the Council on American-
From A Cheerful Boy To Paranoid Student
In Ihab’s case, the effects of the bullying were immediate, Safadi said. He used to be the first to jump out of the car anytime they went out, but now begs his mother to let him wait at home or inside the car if the pair are ever out together. She tried to coax him out and once took him McDonald’s, his favorite place to eat, but he refused to leave the car. Safadi said her son doesn’t want to be seen with his mother in public because she wears a hijab, a visible marker of their Muslim faith.
For months after the January physical assault, the bullying continued at school. Ihab’s bullies frequently called him a member of ISIS and a suicide bomber. Safadi said each time her son went to a teacher or official to voice his concerns, but the school administration brushed them off.
Safadi has attempted to work with school officials to resolve the matter but said officials didn’t take her concerns seriously. She has since sought CAIR’s help to advocate on her behalf to address the matter.
The school, Safadi and the CAIR lawyers have not yet met ― the school spokesperson said CAIR canceled three meetings, which a CAIR spokesperson attributed to “extenuating circumstances, poor communication between spokespersons and scheduling conflicts.”
But Safadi said it’s not enough to reverse the damage that has been inflicted upon her son. She said school officials downplayed the January incident when a student jumped from behind a door and smacked her son without any proper recourse. When she learned that her son was being called names and bullied due to his Arab ethnicity and Muslim faith, Safadi said officials told her they could move him to a different class. (The school declined to offer further details on the situation because it involved another minor.)
Chaudry argued moving the boy “was completely not acceptable, because that’s punishing the student who’s been victimized rather than the student who’s doing the bullying.” Experts such as Ansary, the professor who focuses on discrimination, agree. Moving the student who was bullied only “further victimizes the child,” she said, adding that schools need to address the culprit instead.
October marks National Bullying Prevention Month, a nationwide program founded in 2006 to educate and raise awareness of bullying prevention. For the last several years, CAIR has partnered with the state to provide anti-bullying workshops and inform educators on the signs and dangers of anti-Muslim bullying.
“CAIR recognizes and appreciates school officials’ expressed commitment to providing a safe learning environment for all of its student population,” said Chaudry, adding that the organization was looking “forward to working with DCPS in a variety of ways to promote a bully-free culture in all of its institutions.”
Safadi said she doesn’t want any child to go through what Ihab went through.
“When I send my son to school, I want to be a million percent sure that he’s not going to get hurt,” Safadi said. “He is going to learn and to be safe.”
Safadi is hesitant to send her son back to the school that has caused him so much pain, but believes it’s important to show her son she can push back against a school she believes failed him.
“I need to stand up for him. I don’t want him to see me weak. I need to be fighting,” Safadi said. “I need him to see me strong so he can get that power.”