School classroom with school desks and blackboard in Japanese high school
School classroom with school desks and blackboard in Japanese high school

The United States government is taking a big step to curb religious discrimination in schools.

The U.S. Department of Education announced a series of initiatives this summer to address religious discrimination in public schools, including a new website with legal information regarding students’ religious rights.

For the first time ever, the agency’s Office for Civil Rights will require schools to report the number of incidents involving religious-based bullying and harassment using an online data collection platform. The office also updated its online complaint form to clarify to schools the kinds of incidents that will fall into this category.

The department’s move comes at a crucial time, as the country grapples with disconcerting levels of anti-Muslim sentiment.   

There have been roughly 100 hate crimes committed against Muslims in the U.S. since the Paris terror attacks in November 2015, according to the group Muslim Advocates. Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative found that there were more acts of anti-Muslim violence and vandalism in 2015 than in any year since Sept. 11.

The Huffington Post has also recorded more than 260 acts of anti-Muslim violence, discrimination and political speech in the United States this year.

In the wake of terror attacks carried out by self-declared Muslims in Paris and San Bernardino, California last year, U.S.-based nonprofit group Crisis Text Line saw a major uptick in Muslims reaching out for help. The number of users ― many of them teenagers ― who referenced being Muslim and experiencing bullying and harassment increased by 6.6 times shortly after the Paris attacks in November 2015, the group’s director of communications told CNN.

Muslim students and those of other targeted faiths and ethnicities aren’t protected from such harassment at school. In a 2014 survey, the California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relationships found that 55 percent of Muslim students surveyed reported experiencing bullying based on their religious identity while at school.

One in five students said they had experienced discrimination by a school staff member.

Many advocates and educators blame political rhetoric in part for what they see as a rise in hostility toward Muslim students and those perceived to be Muslim. In an informal survey of 2,000 K-12 teachers published in April, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that more than one-third of the teachers had observed an increase in anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment in their schools during this election cycle.

One teacher reported to SPLC that they overheard a fifth-grader tell a Muslim student “that he was supporting Donald Trump because he was going to kill all of the Muslims if he became president!”

Bullying in schools also affects students who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and a number of other targeted faiths and ethnicities. As a result, the Department of Education will provide technical assistance on demand to schools and community organizations beginning in October to further combat religious discrimination and harassment.

“Students of all religions should feel safe, welcome and valued in our nation’s schools,” Catherine E. Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a release. “We will continue to work with schools and communities to stop discrimination and harassment so that all students have an equal opportunity to participate in school no matter who they are, where they come from or which faith, if any, they subscribe to.”

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