New California Law Aims to Protect Muslim and Sikh Students from Bullying, but May Fall Short

Late this summer, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that aims to protect Muslim and Sikh students from bullying. Assembly Bill 2845 requires schools to make policies to prevent discrimination and create a better understanding of what children in minority religious groups face.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in California worked with other advocacy groups to gather student testimony and pass this law. According to a survey by CAIR-California, 55 percent of Muslim students in the state are bullied because of their religious beliefs. This spans from elementary to high school level.

Civil Rights Attorney Reflects on Motivation for His Work

by Tyler Bartlam

According to a survey by CAIR-California, 55 percent of Muslim students in the state are bullied because of their religious beliefs.

“This bill aims to prevent bullying and discrimination in our public education system as a result of Islamophobia which I think is a disturbing trend and something that I think undermines our nation’s values of tolerance and freedom of religion,” California Assemblyman Das Williams told the Senate Education Committee in his testimony on June 15, 2016. The Democrat from Santa Barbara is the bill’s sponsor.

Saad Sweilem, Civil Rights Attorney for CAIR’s Sacramento Valley Chapter, says girls who wear hijab are the easiest, most visible targets. He uses the example of a 10-year-old girl who chose to wear the religious headscarf in elementary school. The first day she wore the hijab classmates started to tease her. She said they called her ugly, that she looked like an old woman, and they accused her of being a terrorist. This escalated, from being called names to her hair covering being pulled off her head.

“This bill aims to prevent bullying and discrimination in our public education system as a result of Islamophobia which I think is a disturbing trend and something that I think undermines our nation’s values of tolerance and freedom of religion.”

Saad Sweilem, Civil Rights Attorney, The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Sacramento Valley Chapter

When she told the teacher, she felt further isolated when she was asked to stand in front of the class and explain why she dressed differently. The child felt singled out because no other student was expected to explain their manner of dress.

Bullying does not stop at students, teachers too can add to the problem. CAIR reports that 27 percent of students report discrimination from one of their teachers. Whether it is intentional or not, when students report bullying the situation can be made worse because of lack of understanding.

CAIR reports that 27 percent of students report discrimination from one of their teachers.

“Our hope is that the bill will make schools aware of the problem, first of all because a lot of the times these teachers are the first responders in these situations and a lot of times they’re not sure how to handle them,” Sweilem said.

Although the bill’s goal is to protect Muslim students, even the bill’s sponsor says it won’t prevent all incidents of bullying against these kids.

“[Bills like these] are symbolic in that we are trying to make a statement that this dramatic upsurge of hate crimes and bullying of Muslims and people who are perceived as Muslims it is my aim to try to symbolically respond to that. And that may have value in and of itself,” Williams said in his testimony to the Senate Education Committee.