The note said the World Trade Center attacks would be avenged in a massacre of Muslims at a California public high school, with the names of five students listed beneath. They were sent home for their safety.
A Pakistan native in another California high school reported that a classmate told her, “You look like a terrorist.”
In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Arab-American and Islamic groups have reported hundreds of cases of harassment, intimidation and violence, including several at schools. While no violence against Arab and Muslim students has been reported, schools across the country are reporting frightened families and are struggling to assure parents they’ll protect children, while teaching classmates about tolerance.
The incidents have prompted Education Secretary Rod Paige to send a rare “dear colleague” letter to educators, urging that classroom discussions and assemblies honoring victims not inadvertently “foster the targeting of Arab-American students for harassment or blame.”
“We are all committed to making sure our children across America can attend school in a safe and secure environment free from harassment and threats,” Paige said. “Today, I call upon school officials to work with students, parents, and community groups, to ensure that harassment and violence have no place in our schools.”
In his letter, Paige said educators should:
• Encourage students to discuss diversity constructively and to express disagreement over ideas or beliefs in a respectful manner;
• Have a system in place to intervene if particular students exhibit conduct that could endanger others; and
• Encourage all students to report threats of racial or ethnic harassment.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, which claimed more than 6,000 lives, reports of hate crimes and harassment against Arab-Americans have flooded advocates’ offices. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said it had compiled a list of more than 200 incidents. The Council of American-Islamic Relations reported more than 400, including yelling, spitting, extensive vandalism, and assaults.
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee spokesman Hussein Ibish said fear of reprisal has scared many parents into temporarily keeping their children home from both public and private schools.
In some schools, such as the Muslim Educational Trust School in Portland, Ore., parents were asked to walk the grounds during school hours, keeping an eye out for retaliation.
“It’s a tough time for the whole community at large,” said Wajdi Said, the trust’s executive director. “We’ve really felt a sadness and a sorrow.”
In a Palmdale, Calif., public high school, several students stayed home after they were named in a list saying the World Trade Center attacks would be avenged with a Sept. 18 “massacre,” according to one of those on the list.
“I was just shocked and scared,” said Abdul Bachmid, 15, who saw the list outside the school Sept. 17 and reported it to school officials. He and brother Hanif, 18, were two of three Muslim students named.
“Our religion, they don’t allow killing like that,” Hanif said of the attacks. “They consider it a huge sin.”
The family hails from Indonesia and has lived in the United States for 11 years. Until the Sept. 11 attacks, said their mother, Aisha Attamimi, they had never experienced discrimination or harassment.
Police are investigating the incident. Principal Michael Vierra said he sent notices to students and staff discouraging them from laying the blame for the attacks on any ethnic group.
In response to the Sept. 11 tragedies, many schools are changing their curricula.
School officials in Hartford, Conn., have put together a 256-page curriculum guide for teachers, called “Dealing with Our Nation’s Tragedy: Educator’s Idea Guide.” Culled entirely from the internet sites of newspapers and national agencies, it includes ways to address issues such as anger management and tolerance training.
Much of the guide contains information about Arabs, Muslims, and the politics and culture of the Middle East. It also explains the customs of Arab Americans and debunks several common stereotypes.
Nan Horstman, principal of Delta Center Elementary School in Grand Ledge, Mich., said conversations taking place in classrooms in the days following the attacks sound similar to those about bullying, which got widespread attention after school shootings last spring.
Horstman said she goes out of her way to discipline students caught harassing schoolmates over religion or ethnicity.
“I put on a big show,” she said. “I pound the desk and let them know in no uncertain terms that, as long as they’re here, they will not behave in that way.”
Still, she said, one Saudi family kept their children home after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Ibish said mistreatment of Arab-American students isn’t surprising, given what he called an unrelenting negative stereotyping in American television and movies.
“American kids have never been exposed to positive, let alone neutral, images of Arab-Americans,” he said.
Most Americans deserve credit for rising above stereotypes, he said, but he added that the aftermath of the attacks won’t be easy.
“It’s going to be tough for our community,” Ibish said. “We know that, in spite of the support we’re receiving.”
Read the full text of Education Secretary Rod Paige’s letter at http://www.ed.gov/PressReleases/09-2001/09192001c.html.