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San Diego schools battle bullying

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Photo courtesy of Mister G.C. | Flickr.com

Photo courtesy of Mister G.C. | Flickr.com

Photo courtesy of Mister G.C. | Flickr.com

Michele Leivas, Editor

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Last month, the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) Board of Education passed a motion to create a comprehensive strategy addressing Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bullying within its schools.

The superintendent will prepare the plan in collaboration with the district’s Muslim community, ensuring it will exist within the language of SDUSD’s existing anti-bullying and intimidation policy.

SDUSD Board President Dr. Michael McQuary stated in an e-mail, “The purpose of the action was to ensure that all students feel safe, respected, and valued in our schools; that interventions are in place for dealing with bullying, and that an instructional program is in place that effectively addresses the educational needs of each and every student, as well as prepares them for college, career and civic engagement.”

While SDUSD is the first district in San Diego County to approve such a plan, some schools in other districts have already taken steps to address Islamophobia on their own terms.

In the Poway Unified School District (PUSD), the Muslim Student Association (MSA) of Westview High School hosted a Hijab Day during the school’s “No Place for Hate Week” last year. The event invited all students and faculty – both Muslim and non-Muslim – to wear a kufi or hijab (the traditional Islamic scarves and hats worn by men and women, respectively). In doing so, the MSA hoped to spark a discourse and educate the student body on their religious beliefs and practices.

Shannon Parker, the faculty advisor for Westview’s Associated Student Body, organized the weeklong event in collaboration with other staff members and student clubs on campus. Each day focused on a “different intersection of [Westview’s] diverse student population.”

Clubs representing each of these groups, from the campus’s LGBTQ+ community to students with physical and/or mental impairments to religious-affiliated student organizations, were invited to participate in or host events. The MSA was the only religious-affiliated group who expressed a desire to host an event on the day devoted to world religions.

“I will tell you that I was nervous at first,” Parker said. “I made sure to ask the right questions. I didn’t want [the event] to come off as disrespectful [since] those are sacred garments.”

Parker went on to say, “I certainly didn’t want it to be exploited by other students on campus. You just never know now: They could pull their phone out and take a picture and post something that’s not supportive. There were a lot of conversations going into it to make sure it was done correctly.”

The MSA provided talking points along with the hijabs, establishing a collective message from the students and faculty who participated in the event. Overall, Parker said, the day was a huge success.

“I was hoping that our students and our staff would be open to it and they all very much were,” she said.  “It was really exciting to see how many of our non-Muslim students supported our Muslim students’ efforts and wore the hijab for the day or the kufi for the day. I think it definitely created another level of sensitivity towards those students who, every day, are put in that situation of looking different from the student they are sitting next to in class.”

While schools in Poway and other districts host “No Place for Hate” weeks, Parker says these weeks are generally more “benign,” focusing instead on kindness and respect toward others. She said Westview took the week “to another level this past year by talking about hate crimes and breaking it down into our different intersections on campus.”

According to Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliffe, president of PUSD’s board of education, no motion to create a specific strategy addressing and preventing Islamophobia has been officially brought before the board.

Next month, however, PUSD will host a three-day policy development and overhaul workshop, which O’Connor-Ratcliffe stated would be “a prime opportunity to look at [its] current bullying, hate harassment and hate behavior policy and procedures and make sure [they] comprehensive and specific enough.”

The California chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations issued a 2015 report stating more than 55 percent of Muslim students have been the victims of bullying because of their faith.

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San Diego schools battle bullying