American Muslim Children Struggle in School: Impact of the 2016 Election

This election cycle has been difficult to experience, even for adults.  Civil conversations and respect for diversity have been sidelined, and the loudest voices in politics and on television now are frighteningly extreme.

Unsurprisingly the hateful rhetoric has filtered into American schools.  The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has just released a Report entitled “Teaching the 2016 Election: The Trump Effect”.  The Report delves into the impact the presidential campaign has had on school children.

The SPLC surveyed 5,000 American schoolteachers and asked them whether they have seen a rise in bullying, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, and uncivil political discourse since the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign.  They asked teachers to explain whether and how they are discussing the election in school.

The results of the survey are troubling, because it appears that children are bearing some of the worst consequences of the hate speech and racism connected to the election.  Children are seeing politicians using slurs, suggesting mass deportations, bans, and internment camps. They are hearing Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans and immigrants described as terrorists, criminals, and rapists.  They are learning that hatefulness, mistrust, disrespect and suspicion are an acceptable part of American life.

The SPLC Report reveals that school kids are mimicking what they see at home and on the television in their classrooms, and there is now an unprecedented level of bullying and harassment of Muslim American, Hispanic American, and African American students.  This is despite the fact that close to one-third of American students have foreign-born parents.

An alarming 67% of the teachers reported that immigrants, Muslim, African American and other students of color have expressed concern about what might happen to them after this election.  More than one-third of the teachers have seen increasing anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment.

The Report notes:  “Muslim children are harassed and worried.  Even native-born African-American children, whose families arrived here before the American Revolution, ask about being sent back to Africa.  Others, especially younger students, have worries that are the stuff of nightmares, like a return to slavery or being rounded up and put into camps.”

It contains anecdotes highlighting the fact that many children are extremely fearful:  “In Virginia, an elementary school teacher says students are “crying in the classroom and having meltdowns at home.” In Oregon, a K-3 teacher says her black students are “concerned for their safety because of what they see on TV at Trump rallies.” In North Carolina, a high school teacher says she has “Latino students who carry their birth certificates and Social Security cards to school because they are afraid they will be deported.””

Muslim children are fearful of getting put in internment camps, deported, or even killed.  One fifth-grade teacher heard a student tell a Muslim classmate that that he was “supporting Donald Trump because he was going to kill all of the Muslims if he became president!”

Some Muslim students think that, if Trump becomes president “they will have microchips implanted under their skin.”

Teachers from New Hamphire in particular reported some of the worst behavior – perhaps linked to the fact that the first primary was held there.  One high school teacher noted:

“A lot of students think we should kill any and all people we do not agree with. They also think that all Muslims are the same and are a threat to our country and way of life. They believe all Muslims want to kill us.”

Numerous teachers reported that Muslim students, along with Sikh and Hindu students who are mistaken for Muslim, are enduring heightened abuse, with many of them called ISIS, terrorist or bomber.

In December of 2015 a Muslim middle school student was beaten by classmates, called a terrorist, and had her hijab ripped off.

Teachers now sense that students have become emboldened in expressing hateful and discriminatory beliefs.   As a result, many students feel not only scared, but also “hurt” and “dejected” by the fact that so many classmates and even teachers seem to agree with Trump.  According to one teacher, “[t]hey are struggling with the belief that ‘everyone hates them’.”

This explains the increase in depression and anxiety experienced by American Muslim children.  As reported by one Washington state teacher, her teen aged students had repeatedly shouted slurs at a Muslim classmate from their car, and the girl began expressing suicidal thoughts.

In 2015 New Jersey high school senior Maliha Chowdhury committed suicide, after facing severe Islamophobia.  She was beaten and called a terrorist.  Classmates told her that her family was behind 9/11 and one of her class teachers said he was “afraid to be around Muslims”.

A significantly higher number of American Muslim children have begun calling into suicide hotlines.  One CNN commentator noted that there is at least a seven-fold increase in calls from Muslims in 2015.

There is much in the Report to alarm parents, because it shows that even young children are not sheltered from discrimination and hateful speech.  Parents need to reassess the degree to which they discuss these topics at home and in their mosques, and remain vigilant about signs of bullying, depression, and anxiety in their children.

It is also clear from the Report that teachers are struggling to cope with the current environment, and would benefit from the assistance of parents who want to provide support in the classroom to deal with these issues. There is a great need for education about Islam and Muslims in America, and parents should consider reaching out to their schools and class teachers to volunteer to provide presentations or answer questions from students and teachers.

Uzma Mariam Ahmed is a regulatory lawyer, writer, and the mom of two boys.  She is also the Chair of the AltMuslimah Advisory Board. 

(Photo Source: Philippe Put)