California Muslim students are bullied at nearly twice the national average, report shows

A new report shows that 40 percent of Muslim students in California reported being bullied because of their faith, more than twice the national average for bullying in school for all students.

The report, released Wednesday by the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is a statewide survey conducted by CAIR’s four California offices, that surveyed more than 1,500 students in California between ages 11 and 18, asking how they feel at their public and private school campuses. About 240 students surveyed were from the Sacramento area.

The findings point to “minimal improvement in school environments for Muslim students,” according to CAIR officials.

CAIR-CA found that more Muslim high school students were targeted for bullying than lower grade levels. Nearly half of the 12th-graders who responded to the survey reported being bullied — the largest group age group to report bullying.

About 72 percent of Muslim students reported feeling comfortable openly identifying as Muslim, a 5-percentage-point decrease over the last three years.

About 70 percent of students feel safe, welcome and respected at school — a 1-percentage-point improvement from 2016, but a 13-point decline since 2014.

Nearly one in three students reported that teachers, administrators and other school officials made offensive comments about Muslims or Islam. That number has seen a 9-percentage-point improvement since 2016.

“These are the adults that parents have entrusted to nurture and protect their children,” said CAIR Sacramento Valley civil rights attorney Dustin Johnson at a news conference Wednesday in Sacramento.

The report “demonstrates how far we have to go to raise awareness and to protect our students from bullying. While the report shows a decrease in overall reporting of bullying experiences, the rate of bullying of Muslim students is far too high,” Johnson said.

CAIR-California has produced the report every two years since 2013. Its umbrella group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is the largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization in the U.S.

CAIR officials said they hoped the survey would continue advocacy for more legislation to protect California students.

In 2018, CAIR-California sponsored AB 2291, a law that requires schools to offer annual training to teachers and counselors to create a safe learning space for Muslim, LGBTQ, immigrant and other students who may be subject to bullying.

In 2016, AB 2845 addressed bullying against South Asian, Muslim and Sikh students. The law provided schools with community resources, and required the state superintendent of schools to publish anti-bullying resources on the Education Department’s website that could provide support for students based on their religious community, nationality, race or ethnicity.

These laws followed “Seth’s Law,” which in 2012 strengthened the state’s existing anti-bullying laws.

Johnson said the report shows a need for more legislation, including strong federal legislation against bullying.

Currently, no federal law directly addresses bullying. CAIR officials called on Congress to pass House Resolution 2653, the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would amend the 1965 law that mandates states to establish policies to prevent bullying. The new law would prohibit bullying and harassment based on religion, race, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. The law would also require that states report data on bullying and harassment to the Department of Education, and Congress would release the data every two years.

“Our children deserve a safe place and comfortable space to learn and grow,” Johnson said.

The CAIR report also recommended that school districts train administrators and teachers, and work on fostering a diverse and welcoming environment for all students. CAIR recommended that schools implement policies on how teachers should intervene in bullying incidents and ensure that they know how to prevent bullying in their classrooms.

Anoosh Ali, 18, said she was bullied in elementary school when her teacher brought in a newspaper with Osama bin Laden on the front page. Ali said she skipped the next four days of school after a student attacked her appearance, because she decided to wear a headscarf her mother had given her that day.

“I suffered the consequences of one day, one boy, one finger, until just last year when I finally decided to wear the hijab again,” Ali said. “It took me 10 years to get over the shattering effects that bullying had. Ten years.”

Ali, who now attends Sierra College in Rocklin, said it wasn’t until she started attending Mira Loma High School that she felt welcomed – as it had an ethnically and religiously diverse student population.

Other students say they were not as welcomed. Douglas Moore said he spent an entire year complaining to his 12-year-old daughter’s elementary school in Marysville Joint Unified School District that a teacher was repeatedly harassing her for being Muslim, describing her as a “negative aura.”

Moore said his complaints were ignored, and the teacher was not disciplined. Moore’s daughter became depressed, and began seeking therapy. She pleaded with her parents to allow her to drop out of school.

Moore’s daughter and her brother left the district, and both started school at the nearby Wheatland School District. She became a Girl Scout cadette and used her recent experiences to raise awareness by creating a project about bullying.

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.