Posted by Rawan Elbaba on January 20, 2016 in Blog

The Department of Education (DOE) is urging schools and colleges across the country to thwart any harassment and discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin. In an open letter to educational leaders, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan and acting Secretary John B. King, Jr. discuss the importance of ensuring a safe learning environment for students at a “time when fear and anger are heightened, and when public debate sometimes results in the dissemination of misinformation.” 

The DOE is spearheading this movement to safeguard the protection of young students against various forms of harassment and discrimination including physical violence, name-calling and cyberbullying against “those who are, or are perceived to be, Syrian, Muslim, Middle Eastern, or Arab, as well as those who are Sikh, Jewish, or students of color.” 

The letter comes in the wake of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, both of which incited anti-Muslim and anti-refugee backlash. Since the attacks, GOP presidential candidate, Donald Trump, proposed a temporary ban on all Muslims traveling to the United States and more than half of U.S. governors have refused to resettle Syrian refugees in their states. These reactions create a domino effect of xenophobia and bigotry that is regularly felt in classrooms across the nation.

Examples of bigotry were occurring in schools before the backlash of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. For example, 14-year-old Muslim American Ahmed Mohamed was arrested in Texas for bringing a clock he made to school; his teacher reported the homemade invention, fearing it was a bomb. This fear mongering and bigoted rhetoric, and the type of actions that stem from it, only moves the course of our country further away from the values of inclusiveness and opportunity that define it.

In response to the increase in bigotry and fear-mongering however, the DOE insists on welcoming refugees fleeing violence in Syria with open arms and open minds. The letter is also adamant about restricting racial, ethnic and religious discrimination in schools by creating an open atmosphere for healthy discussion of current events. 

The letter advises schools to show leadership in times of intolerance. With that, it suggested several ways school systems can promote ideas that celebrate diversity and acceptance. These include: communicating a clear anti-harassment and anti-bullying message; noting consequences for bullying and harassment; engaging interfaith leaders to expose students to other cultures and faiths; and encouraging students and faculty to report incidents of harassment or bullying.

Secretary Duncan and acting Secretary King concluded the letter by reiterating that inclusiveness and religious tolerance are the foundational values America has thrived on. The letter was also sure to note the federal laws that prohibit discrimination and harassment. An addendum at the end of the letter listed essential resources on safe learning, bullying, and harassment for school officials, educators, students, parents and communities to promote “positive school climates.”



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