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Teaching ‘different is OK’ to combat Islamophobia in U.S. schools

May 17, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
According to a new study, some 50 percent of all Muslim students in the U.S. have been bullied by their peers. In mostly-white St. Cloud, Minnesota — where thousands of east African refugees have relocated — the problem got so bad that Muslim students walked out of the city’s high school en masse. John Tulenko of Education Week takes a look at the intersection of education and Islamophobia.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Next: a look at the growing problem of harassment Muslim-American students often face in public schools.

Surveys by the Center on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group, suggest that some 50 percent of Muslim students have been bullied by their peers. One hot spot has been St. Cloud, Minnesota, a small city 90 minutes west of Minneapolis.

John Tulenko of Education Week reports on the controversies there and how the school district responded.

It’s part of our education series Making the Grade, which airs Tuesdays on the “NewsHour.”

JOHN TULENKO: Hafsa Abdi, who’s 18-years-old, remembers well the day four years ago when she was first bullied for being Muslim.

HAFSA ABDI, Student, St. Cloud Technical High School: The last day of by eighth grade year, I was just going home, and then this boy — I think he was a year younger than me — he pulled off my hijab. And at the time, I was wearing a longer one, so it was more easy to kind of like pull off from the back.

And then I also had like a pin underneath to hold it in place. And then that kind of came loose. So, like, at the time I was just trying to think of like five different things at one time, like trying to get the pin to not stab me in the neck, and then turn around to see who this kid is.

JOHN TULENKO: In high school, the bullying continued, especially when she and other Muslim students would gather to pray.

HAFSA ABDI: Mostly, the upperclassmen, they would come into the bathroom sometimes and start fighting with the Somali girls that were trying to wash for prayer, and then when it gets reported, nothing would happen.

JOHN TULENKO: What would they say?

HAFSA ABDI: So they’d be like, oh, well, why are you making the bathroom dirty, you stinky Somalian or you terrorist or stuff like that, or go back to where you came from.

JOHN TULENKO: Where Hafsa comes from is Minnesota. She was born here, after her parents fled Somalia to escape civil war. Thousands of other East African refugees have also come to St. Cloud, changing the face of this mostly white, mostly Catholic small city.

WILLIE JETT, Superintendent, St. Cloud Area School District 742: My job is to make sure that all children, whether it’s their children, whether it’s somebody brand-new to the country, that they have the best tools available to be successful here in America, here within our community.

JOHN TULENKO: For superintendent Willie Jett, educating the new arrivals required changes across the board.

WILLIE JETT: What we have had to do is start from ground zero. You’re trying to make sure that, A, all the different languages within school are welcomed.

You’re trying to make sure that you have interpreters. You’re making sure that you’re revamping teaching staff and support staff and the way that you hold conferences, the way that you send messages home. It’s not what it was 20, 30, 40 years ago, even 10 years ago.

JOHN TULENKO: But all this change, in and out of schools, has stirred resentment.

WOMAN: There is a lot of racial prejudice in our area.

JOHN TULENKO: At this local coffee shop, the divisions in the community were plain to see.

MAN: They think they’re Americans, but when our forefathers come over, they blended in with everyone else. And these people…

MAN: This is America. They should be talking English. But you walk downtown, and they’re always talking their language. How in the hell are we supposed to get to know them if we don’t know what the hell they’re saying?

MAN: I have not had a difficulty with the Somali community. We talk about ourselves being American. I don’t think we’re very welcoming.

JOHN TULENKO: Similar tensions had been building in the high school, until they came out online.

HAFSA ABDI: They would take pictures of us. The one that I can think of most popular is, there was this girl who was in a wheelchair because she broke her leg, and she was in the lunch line waiting. And this senior boy who went here last year, he took a picture of her and captioned it, “Handicapped and ISIS too.”

And then he put it on his Snapchat story. So, his Snapchat story is available for everyone to see. It spread within like 10 minutes, and the whole school knew about it.

JOHN TULENKO: Reaction was swift. Muslim students walked out of St. Cloud Tech in spring 2015. Reports of harassment emerged in other cities throughout summer and fall of last year, especially after the massacres in San Bernardino and Paris, and following candidate Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the country.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have had mothers write and say “My heart cries every night thinking how our daughter might be treated at school.”

JOHN TULENKO: The president addressed the problem at his first ever visit to a mosque in February.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are one American family. And when any part of our family starts to feel separate or second-class or targeted, it tears at the very fabric of our nation.


MAN: We’re coming together to create a difference in your school, so everybody in the school feels safe and welcomed.

JOHN TULENKO: Back in St. Cloud, they have used the year since the walkout to speak out against harassment by training this specially chosen group of students to go out and begin a dialogue with the bullies.

UBAH NOOR, Student, St. Cloud Technical High School: We’re trying to include people, and we’re not going to sit here and say, no, your opinion is wrong, you shouldn’t feel this way and that way about a culture. We’re trying to educate them, so that — in hopes that they would open up their minds and, I guess, change.

JOHN TULENKO: And how they’d go about changing minds could be seen in activities like this one, in which the students arranged themselves according to how far they were born from St. Cloud.

Staff member Sebastian Witherspoon is one of the group’s founders.

What do you want them to learn?

SEBASTIAN WITHERSPOON, Director of Equity Services, St. Cloud Area School District: Difference is OK. If you’re from Somalia, if you’re from Duluth as a black male, if you’re from Robbinsdale, whatever, there is beauty in difference. There’s beauty in coming from different places, being different culture, have different ethnicities.

That’s — to me, that’s — there’s education to me, is having all these people who have a variety of experiences and us learning from that to enrich our lives.

JOHN TULENKO: Students are also organizing a cultural carnival, featuring food, music, and clothing from their home countries. But in some groups, there are worries about who will come.

STUDENT: The people who don’t want to be there are the people that need to be there. I mean, I feel like the people who need the conversation aren’t the ones that are actually coming.

JOHN TULENKO: There could be another approach, which the president had seemed to use, and we brought it up with Hafsa.

Hafsa, I’m wondering maybe the better approach would be to educate those bullies about what it means to be an American.

HAFSA ABDI: Mm-hmm. I do feel like it comes from the stereotype of what an American looks like. So, a lot of people feel someone who looks like me can’t be an American, because of my skin color or like a hijab that I’m wearing, and that makes me not American.

So I feel like really actually do need to understand the actual definition of what it is to be an American.

JOHN TULENKO: But others in the group weren’t so sure.

What about the notion of America?

UBAH NOOR: I feel like we have been teaching what our country has been founded on since elementary school with social studies, with U.S. history, with government.

We have been constantly talking about what this country is founded on with liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness, but it’s not sticking to people. So, we need to find a different approach to this.

JOHN TULENKO: So, one year from the walkout, how much has changed?

CASEY HILDEN, Student, St. Cloud Technical School: I have seen, like, Muslim people and St. Cloud natives become on better terms a little bit, but it’s not been like super noticeable.

UBAH NOOR: There are other students that are stepping out of their way to — if a Somali kid is walking in the hallway and somebody says something to them, they might step in and be like, hey, that’s not funny. And I have noticed like that happen every once in awhile, and I feel like, gradually, it’s changing.

JOHN TULENKO: It’s a start on what’s likely a long-term project.

In St. Cloud, Minnesota, I’m John Tulenko of Education Week, reporting for the “PBS NewsHour.”