Supporting K-12 Muslim Students in the Wake of President Trump’s Ban

By Kate Allman

Visiting Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins School of Education

President Trump’s recent executive order temporarily banning the entry of individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries and stopping refugee admissions for 120 days has been widely critiqued as discriminatory in intent and effect. Described by the president as “extreme vetting” to “keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America,” it results in a dangerous conflation of terrorism and the Islamic faith practiced in the banned countries and across the world. At this writing, the order has been blocked by the courts.

While the recent order is directed toward temporary residents and refugees, it has the potential to embolden those who hold Islamophobic attitudes and jeopardize the safety of U.S. citizens who are Muslim. Over 3.3 million U.S. citizens identify as Muslim, approximately a fourth of which are school-aged children. In a 2014 report issued by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), 55 percent of California Muslims reported being the victim of at least one form of religion-based bullying. Twenty-percent of Muslim youth who participated in the CAIR 2014 survey reported discrimination by a teacher, administrator or other staff member. As Muslim students step into schools over the coming weeks, it is important that teachers and school leaders seek out opportunities to support Muslim students who may feel unsafe.

Here are two ways that teachers and school leaders can support Muslim students as arguments over the ban play out in the courts:

1) Create safe spaces: Schools must proactively create school environments where Muslim students are supported in their learning communities. School leaders need to ensure that all school staff are aware of federal and state legislation that protects students of any religion from discrimination and harassment based on actual or perceived ethnicity or citizenship. Keeping these laws in mind, teachers must understand the enormous diversity among the U.S. Muslim student population: U.S. Muslim students have family origins in over 77 countries and identify with every U.S. racial background. Thirty-percent of adult Muslims describe themselves as white, 23 percent as black, 21 percent as Asian, 6 percent as Hispanic and 19 percent as “other” or mixed race, according to the Pew Research Center.

While many Muslim students in the United States are first-generation immigrants, approximately 81 percent of Muslim adults are U.S. citizens and approximately 37 percent of U.S. Muslim families have lived in the United States for two or more generations. Educators and school leaders must understand that Muslim students cannot be easily identified based upon appearance, ethnicity or language, and they must take special care to fight stereotyping based on perceived or actual ethnicity, spoken language or other social markers.

Teachers and educational leaders should also familiarize themselves with the kinds of harassment that Muslim students often experience and the contexts in which this bullying can occur. When bullied, Muslim students are most often the targets of ethnic slurs, either made in person or on social media. Muslim students, particularly girls, frequently report harassment for how they look or dress—for example, comments directed toward girls who wear the hijab—and are sometimes asked to remove their hijab by students or educators. Muslim boys who choose to wear a taqiyah or koofi also experience similar incidents of harassment. In extreme cases, peers or teachers have tried to forcibly remove a student’s hijab or head covering.

Given this information, school leaders should closely monitor student behavior, particularly in bathrooms and gym areas, and be aware that discriminatory language often precipitates physically aggressive behavior. Schools should encourage students to approach a teacher, counselor or administrator about any discriminatory conduct as soon as it occurs. Guidance counselors or a trusted administrator should also be available to discuss the recent events or any concerns.

While some students may want to process events with their teacher or counselor, others may want to organize school-wide events aimed at educating the public or advocating for the rights of Muslims and refugees. Teachers should also support students’ attempts to reach out or organize at the school.

2) Share Muslims’ Stories: Islam is an extremely diverse religion, with followers in every country of the world. It is not practiced in one common way, even within a singular nation—practices vary based upon one’s sect, region of origin, socioeconomic status, linguistic practices and other social factors.

In my research, I discuss the possibilities and limitations for integrating literature written by Muslims as a tool for disrupting Islamophobia in the classroom. While literature by Muslim authors can be taught in ways that reinforce stereotypes and monolithic views of Muslims, when taught in disparate clusters with authors from different backgrounds and perspectives being read together, it has the opportunity to highlight the diversity of religious practices and beliefs among Muslims and challenge Islamophobic assumptions. At a time when the Islamic faith is being simplified to acts of terrorism, reading literature written by Muslims from different regions can highlight the diversity of beliefs and practices among Muslims and serve to challenge Trump’s order conflating Islam and national origin. It can also support Muslim students of various backgrounds within your classroom.

A sample of books that could be clustered in the classroom:

Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan (K-3rd grade);

The Sky of Afghanistan by Ana Eulate (K-2nd grade);

Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born by Ana Eulate (K-3rd grade);

The Grande Mosque of Paris by Karen Gray Ruelle (4th-6th grade);

The Clever Sheikh of the Butana and Other Stories: Sudanese Folk Tales edited by Ali Lutfi Abdallah (5th-12th grade);

Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fatah (7th-12th grade);

A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar (9th-12th grade);

Salt by Nayyirah Waheed (10th-12th grade);

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf (10th-12th grade); and

Born Palestinian Born Black and the Gaza Suite by Suheir Hammed (9th-12th grade).

Kate Allman is a member of the national Middle East Outreach Council and has published several articles examining the schooling experiences of Muslim students and interpreting her findings for school leaders. Her most recent book chapter, “I’m Not Ashamed of Who I Am: Counter-stories of Muslim, Arab Immigrant Students in North Carolina,” was published this year by Sense Publishers in the book Immigration and Education in North Carolina: The Challenges and Responses in a New Gateway State. For descriptions of the books and additional resources to support of K-12 Muslim students, you can reach her at sallman1@jhu.edu.

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