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4 Ways to Make Schools Safer for Muslim Students

We risk alienating an entire generation of our kids if schools do not work to make sure they are safe and welcomed.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post on January 15, 2016.

By Jessica Winegar 

I am dreading the day that my young son comes home from school hurt from his first experience of anti-Muslim bigotry.

At age 8, he has little sense yet that many Americans are prejudice against his dad and all of his beloved relatives in Egypt, just because of their religion. He doesn't know that Donald Trump and his supporters would prevent part of his family from visiting us for the holidays if they could. He doesn't know yet that well over 50 percent of Americans have unfavorable views of Islam, even though most know little about it.

I am a parent and an educator who writes about Islamophobia at colleges and universities in this country and because experiencing Islamophobia feels almost inevitable, I'm simply hoping that my son only faces verbal racism in school.

My fear is warranted: This year there was a horrific spate of punitive and also violent attacks and threats on Muslim students. The most awful incident is the cold-blooded murder of three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. There was the 6th grade Muslim girl in the New York City public schools who was recently pummeled by other students shouting "ISIS" at her. Then there was the widely publicized case of Ahmed Mohamed, the science-loving 14-year old in Texas, who brilliantly crafted a clock and was subsequently handcuffed by the authorities and, in violation of the law, denied access to his parents after his bigoted teacher reported he had made a bomb.

But even if my son "only" experiences verbal racism, which 50 percent of Muslim kids in California have, it is a form of bullying that could cause serious psychological harm. Sadly, due to the backlash over a few Muslims who commit acts of terror (out of over one billion who do not), studies show that young Muslim Americans are under serious stress these days and may face discrimination and bullying.

Given the hostile climate toward Muslims, including in schools, I was the one stressed ahead of my son's recent holiday school party. The teacher had sent home a questionnaire asking about people's holiday traditions. Even though we also celebrate Christmas, I included a Muslim holiday. The designated classroom parents emailed me asking if we would like to contribute a craft or food to the holiday party that honored the Islamic celebration.

I was grateful for that response. My husband and I decided to teach the kids how to make "birthday dolls" -- or the dolls made out of sugar (we made them out of paper) that are typically sold in Egypt to honor the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, which in 2015 fell around the time of Christ's birthday.

I worried, however, that the students, their parents, or their teacher would complain that we were indoctrinating the kids into Islam. I was literally shaking the morning of the party. But my son was smiling. He felt like he had a place in this classroom, not just his Christmas-present-opening self, but also his visits-to-the-mosque-with-dad self.

It turned out that I didn't need to be nervous. The room parent gushed over the craft and said it was great that the kids were learning about all different religious and cultural traditions. No parents complained about indoctrination. The teacher was supportive. The kids had fun making our craft and then went on to make Christmas tree and snowman snow globes with another parent volunteer.

Fortunately, similar welcome openness to our country's Muslims and their varied traditions are emerging in response to the rampant prejudice and discrimination. Ahmed Mohamed got invited to the White House and a researcher in astrophysics at MIT invited him to come visit his "dream school." Non-Muslim high school students are donning the hijab out of solidarity with those Muslim women who wear it. Soon after Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. major leaders of both parties rushed to condemn it.

We need that trend to continue, especially in our schools.

As I've pondered what could make schools safer for Muslim students like my son in 2016, I came up with these four suggestions.

1. All schools need to recognize that anti-Muslim bias is a form of racism, and the tools that schools have developed to address other forms of racism (e.g., anti-black, anti-Latino, anti-Asian, anti-Jewish, and anti-Native American) could be adapted to address this newer ugly phenomenon.

2. School administrators should include lessons on what constitutes Islamophobia, and strategies to confront, it as part of their civil rights and sensitivity training for teachers and faculty. Teachers should also receive training and support dedicated to fighting anti-Muslim bullying. School assemblies and other events to address racism or bullying could, where appropriate, include mention of anti-Muslim prejudice.

3. Teachers should also make sure that classroom material on Islam and Muslims is free of bias. When discussing sensitive topics like 9/11 or ISIS, they should not make Muslim students feel singled out or made to defend their religion.

4. And school districts should develop appropriate responses to support responsible teachers and faculty who oppose anti-Muslim hatred and/or teach about Islam in a sensitive and sensible fashion, rather than suspending faculty or closing schools, as recently happened in Illinois and Virginia.

There are numerous organizations and experts who can support these efforts, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations to the Southern Poverty Law Center to local college faculty experts on the matters at hand.

We risk alienating an entire generation of our kids if schools do not work to make sure they are safe and welcomed.

- , associate professor of Anthropology, Middle East and North African Studies at Northwestern