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Responding To Religious Harassment In US Schools – A Guide


Bullying in US schools

Across America, Arab and Muslim community leaders are receiving an alarming uptick in student reports of religious-based harassment and bullying targeting Arab and Muslim students in elementary and secondary schools.  Outside of Denver, just a week after October 7, Palestinian American students reported being called “terrorists” by teachers and peers.  Across Maryland, Muslim and Arab students documented threatening incidents in school when they affirmed their support for Palestinian human rights.  In Northern Virginia, students mobilized walkouts to express support for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid in Gaza, but still faced close observation and scrutiny from parents who worried that the walkouts would not be peaceful.  

This is not the first time that Muslim and Arab students have been subjected to collective blame after violent incidents in the Middle East. My research shows that after 9/11, Muslim and Arab students face targeted harassment each September when 9/11 is taught in classrooms.  In past crises, when Muslim and Arab students speak out in support of Palestine, they are met with bullying and harassment, often at the hands of adults. Attempts by school leaders to teach this history in ethnic studies classes are met with local resistance and Palestinian curriculum resources remain censored in many public schools. Muslim students have the right to practice their faith and engage in political speech without being subject to harassment or bullying.

Community leaders need information

Community leaders should be equipped with key information to give to students and their families. There are religious and mental health resources available to guide parents on how to talk to their children about Palestine. CAIR developed materials to advise students on how to speak about Islamophobia and Palestinian rights in schools. The Family Youth Institute has effective guidance on addressing traumatic events with children. Parents and community members can get direct support from The Khalil Center’s online psycho-spiritual support group and Maristan’s mental health guidebook. Yaqeen Institute published a dua’a to recite to overcome feeling helpless.   

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ICNA Council for Social Justice has essential references defining bullying with related prevention resources. This is not new; in 2022 nearly half of Muslim families with school-age students reported experiencing bullying. And each September when 9/11 is taught in classrooms or when a terrorist attack takes innocent lives, students describe a spike in targeted bullying and harassment.

Responding to bias in U.S. schools

In addition to these valuable resources, community leaders can advise students and their families on how to respond to bias-related incidents occurring in U.S. schools.  

Report!  If a student experiences bias or bullying, including nonverbal actions, families should report it to the school as soon as possible. Incidents that occur in the classroom should be reported to the teacher. Incidents that occur in hallways, cafeterias, playgrounds, restrooms, or buses should be reported to the Principal (or Principal’s Designee– Assistant / Vice Principal).  If a staff member is responsible for causing the incident, or if the child experienced bias or bullying before, report directly to the Principal. If the Principal is responsible, report directly to the Regional or District Superintendent. If the student experienced racial or religious discrimination, they can also file a report online with the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. In addition to meeting with a school official about the incident, encourage families to file a written report with the school or district equity office to document the incident and begin the formal process to address the concern. If a family needs assistance filing a report, direct them to the district’s confidential ombudsman’s office, a parent liaison, or a school guidance counselor. 


PC: Jesús Rodríguez (unsplash)

Address it!  Families can request to meet with a school or district leader to discuss how to address the bias or bullying incident, these meetings should include the child when possible. It is reasonable to request that the student receive a written or verbal apology from the one(s) who caused the harm. If another student is repeatedly at fault, families can ask for that student to be removed from their child’s classes or school bus route. If a teacher caused harm, families could ask for the student to be placed in a new classroom with a different teacher. Families can request counseling services to help the child recover from the harassment. Families who are aware of other incidents of bias or bullying can suggest guidance lessons or school assemblies to raise awareness of racial and religious bias and bullying.  Families can also propose age-appropriate anti-bullying campaigns, professional development for staff, and the establishment of guidance groups for students with shared experiences.    

Follow up!  After 1 – 2 weeks, families should follow up with staff to ensure that the issue was effectively addressed. The original documentation should be reviewed and the plan to address the incident should be assessed for completion. Families can describe how the incident has impacted their child since filing the report to determine if additional wellness or safety resources should be offered. If the school has not implemented the agreed-upon plan to address the incident, the family should consider escalating their grievances. Reports not addressed at school should be raised to the superintendent’s office. Reports not addressed at the district can be raised to the state board of education or the U.S. Department of Education. Families may also choose to document bias and bullying incidents with Arab or Muslim legal organizations who may assist a family in seeking legal recourse for civil rights violations.  

Common errors to avoid

By following these steps, community leaders can effectively guide students and their families to address incidents of bias and bullying in U.S. classrooms or schools. But under the stress of this crisis, I see Muslim community leaders taking actions that may not support the long-term interests of students and their families. Below I list some of the common errors that leaders have made in this situation hoping that others can avoid similar responses.

  • Masjid and community center leaders have created online forms for students and families to report incidents of bias and bullying. Leaders are not ensuring that the personal data being collected is protected with appropriate levels of privacy and security. Most importantly, community leaders cannot use this information to address specific incidents with school leaders on behalf of students due to the legal restrictions in the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. Although leaders are likely organizing to help identify local patterns of bias and bullying in the schools, it is a missed opportunity to teach students and their families to engage directly with public leaders to advocate for their rights.      


  • Masjid and community leaders have advised parents and guardians on how to address the bias or bullying incident without consulting with the impacted student. Students need to be involved in proposing ways to address the harm so that they can support the plan and minimize disruptions to their existing school relationships.  Secondly, community leaders may wrongfully insist upon punitive and disciplinary responses with legal consequences because it appears as a moral victory to the impacted student. School leaders may instead propose addressing incidents through restorative justice because research describes it as preventing further injustice and promoting a healthy school climate.  


  • Well-intentioned volunteers may not follow up. After a student or family shares an incident of bias or bullying with masjid or community leaders, the leadership team should ensure that someone follows up with the student and family in a timely manner. The masjid or community leaders can determine if the family needs additional services to meet the child’s needs, or if the family needs guidance on elevating their concerns to higher authorities. When a community fails to follow up it can leave a family feeling a greater sense of frustration and isolation as they try to navigate a complicated school system.  

Muslim students are facing harassment and bullying in schools for both their religious and ethnic identities as well as their bold declarations of political speech. Masjid and community leaders need timely information to guide students and their families through established processes to report incidents of bias or discrimination. It is our civic responsibility to hold public officials accountable for establishing safe and supportive schools for all students, and that includes speaking up and speaking out when our students’ rights are violated.


Related reading:

Recognizing The Personal Perspectives Of Muslim Student Experiences

Bullying, Islam & Everything In Between

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Amaarah DeCuir, EdD, is a faculty member at American University in the School of Education and an affiliate faculty member of its Antiracist Research and Policy Center. She also serves as an Executive Board member at the Center for Islam in the Contemporary World at Shenandoah University.

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