Pushing back against schoolyard terror

Sixteen year old Kristian, a Muslim American student at a Staten Island public school in New York, recently confided in his parents about a serious problem that he faced every day at his school: being bullied and terrorized by four classmates at his school. Every day. For nine months. I had the opportunity to speak with Kristian and his parents recently, and the situation is shocking. The juveniles, who are minorities themselves, referred to Kristian as a terrorist and beat him during school, in the hallways and classrooms, often with teachers witnessing the inappropriate conduct.
Kristian’s parents quickly noticed their son’s diminishing interest in TV, music, video games, and school, they told me, but despite persistent probing of their son, his teachers, and even medical professionals, they could not determine the problem. Kristian stayed quiet, fearful his situation would get worse if he exposed his perpetrators. He told me, “They said if I told anyone, they’d kill my mom. And I really believe they would do it.”

Kristian’s situation is one of many tragic stories occurring every day in our schools. A study cited by the Health Resources and Services Administration (an agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services) indicates that ”between 15-25% of US students are bullied with some frequency (“sometimes or more often”) while 15-20% report that they bully others with some frequency.” (Melton et al, 1998; Nansel et al, 2001). Furthermore, the study reveals a major discrepancy in the incidence of bullying, and teachers’ awareness of it: while 70% of teachers reported they “almost always” intervene in bullying situations, only 25% of students agreed with this assessment. In Kristian’s case, the unfortunate reality is that they didn’t intervene at all. His parents sadly stated that even when they probed teachers, the teachers denied that there was any problem, even though they had been witness to countless bullying situations.

Informal studies done by the HEART Women and Girls Project indicate similar challenges. More than 60% of middle school and high school students report being victims of bullying or knowing others who are bullied. What’s most interesting is when asked the question “what are some of the greatest challenges facing you as a Muslim American girl,” over a third of students had responses such as the following: “discrimination,” “being called a terrorist,” “how they stare at you.” Doesn’t sound too different from Kristian’s story, does it?

Being labeled a terrorist and being physically or emotionally abused for simply being Muslim is grossly inappropriate and can have long term consequences on one’s health and wellbeing. Likewise, it is just as inappropriate to attack one’s sexual preferences, regardless of what they are. Children and youth who are bullied are more likely to be depressed, lonely, and anxious, have low self esteem, feel unwell, and think about suicide. In extreme cases, we have situations like the four teenagers who committed suicide in September 2010 because they were being teased for their sexual orientation.

How does this happen? Why are our young boys and girls so cruel to each other? Why is it easier for them to poke fun at what is unfamiliar, rather than explore it, and exercise their inquisitiveness? Media and societal pressures are sending indirect and not so indirect messages to them about what to think and how to think. Meanwhile, not enough people are teaching our youth how to think critically about the media messages they are bombarded with. At a recent media workshop, I learned that so much of the time, our young girls and boys are hit with mixed messaging, leaving them very confused about what’s socially “appropriate” and “acceptable,” and what’s not. For example, when you hear the phrase, “be a man!” what comes to mind? Words such as “aggressive,” “strong,” “shows no emotion,” and “leader” are natural terms to associate with this phrase. Society has created a “box” with these words – what happens when a boy doesn’t fit into this box? What happens when he does show emotion? Or isn’t aggressive, but rather, gentle? More often than not, this boy is singled out, ridiculed, and possibly even excluded from the main social circle in school. In Kristian’s case, this “box” had no room for people who identified as Muslim.

Moreover, in contrast to this societal and media messaging of what it means to “be a man,” mothers, sisters, girlfriends, and wives expect and desire the men in their lives to be sensitive and gentle, and to show emotion. So we have a generation of boys that are confused – being pressured to “be a man!” in public, but show their “feminine” side at home(1). This undoubtedly causes much confusion, and contributes to young people singling others out because they don’t fit into the box of what is “normal.”

Bullying has serious consequences, and too little has been done to address it. If this trend continues, society will produce a generation of “terrorists.” After all, aren’t the boys who bullied Kristian the true “terrorists” in this situation?

It is essential for schools, youth groups, and clubs to adopt an “interfaith outreach”-like approach for young people to learn about each other’s differences and celebrate them, rather than use them as a motive for attack. Moreover, we need to hold the media to account, and push them to teach our young boys and girls to dissect what the media is telling them, and to critically think about some of the incredibly sexist, racist, misogynistic, and inappropriate values being sold to them on a daily basis. We are a country that honors diversity, yet more and more of our young boys and girls are conforming to fit into a “box” and alienating those who don’t fit. And most tragically, we remain paralyzed as bystanders, unable to put an end to this damaging behavior.

(1) A similar analysis was done on girls and what it means to “be a lady.”

(Photo credit: Taylor Dawn Fortune)
Nadiah is co-founder and director of programs for the HEART Women & Girls Project. She recently earned her Masters in Public Health from the University of Illinois at Chicago. in the past she has been a consultant for the Office on Women’s Health (OWH) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services working on a variety of different projects focusing on HIV/AIDS awareness, American Indian/Alaska Native Health, and improving the health of Chicago. Prior to her work at the OWH, she worked on a research project focusing on improving the pregnancy outcomes of low-income Chicago women. She earned her bachelor degree in Public Policy Studies from University of Chicago and lives in Chicago with her two children and husband. Additionally, Nadiah is the Program Manager for American Muslim Health Professionals.

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