By Guest Contributor Sukjong Hong
No one promises junior high school will be easy. But for Pawanpreet Singh, a tall and mild-mannered Sikh-American teenager, junior high was overshadowed with the memories of classmates calling him “Osama” and “terrorist” and touching his turban. “I would hear at least one comment per day … I felt like I was less than everyone else, and some other species. It took a toll on my self esteem and academics,” he said. Now, as a high school student advocate, he hears from other students around the city who face the same insults and get no help from the school staff they call upon. At a September 5th press conference in lower Manhattan, Singh recalled a 13-year old student who reported to his teacher that his classmate had called him a “raghead.” According to the student, the teacher replied, “What’s the problem? That’s what you are.”
It has been five years since New York City’s Department of Education established a regulation to address bias-based bullying regulation in schools, Chancellor’s Regulation A-832. (PDF) The regulation was the result of years of advocacy by community and legal groups in the aftermath of three high-profile incidents of harassment against Sikh-American students. On paper, the regulation is comprehensive, with measures for defining, reporting, addressing, and preventing bias-based harassment in schools. But a survey conducted by a coalition of community and legal groups, including the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), the Sikh Coalition, the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF) and CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, revealed that bias-based bullying is still a far too common experience for Asian-American students.
Based on the responses of 163 students in after school programs, youth leadership meetings and houses of workshop across the city, the report by AALDEF and the Sikh Coalition, One Step Forward, Half A Step Back, finds that half of the students surveyed had experienced bias-based harassment at school. What’s even more unacceptable, according to Amardeep Singh, Program Director of the Sikh Coalition, is that more than 25 percent of Sikh students experienced physical violence based on their identity.
Many schools have yet to fully enforce the accountability measures of the Chancellor’s regulation. Just 66 percent of students responded that their school had designated a staff person to receive reports of biased-based harassment. Only 16 percent of the students who reported being bullied received a written report with the results of a school investigation, and less than half of the students’ parents were notified of the bullying incident.
The harassment extends beyond Sikh-American students to other Asian-American groups as well. “A group of people called my friends and me ‘chinks’ and dropped garbage to show that we were lower class,” one Asian-American student was quoted in the report. For Tania Hussain, a 14-year old Bengali-American student, she vividly remembered when a classmate said to her and a Muslim classmate, “Oh, you’re a terrorist. Are you going to bomb America? Are you allies with Osama bin Laden?” It was the first time she had been targeted, but it opened her eyes to the harassment that other students experienced on a regular basis. From these interviews and other reports, it appears that Asian-American students of South Asian heritage frequently experienced Islamophobic harassment from fellow students, a far-reaching legacy of the racial and religious backlash that accompanied the U.S. War on Terror.
Beyond anti-Muslim sentiments, the bullying of Asian-American students also included subtle forms of non-physical aggression, such as insults related to cultural characteristics, academic performance, and the ability to speak English. Students like Allyson Dia were glad that she could talk about this in the youth leadership group at CACF.
“I just thought it was something only I went through, but joining this program really opened my eyes to all the microaggressions that I faced,” she said. She had transferred schools in the past because of bullying by peers and what she felt was retaliation from teachers to whom she reported the harassment.
This is not to say that the implementation of the regulation hasn’t improved at all. Many more students reported seeing “Respect for All” posters and brochures (PDF) in 2012, an increase of more than 30% since 2009. The program, initially a measure to combat homophobia, was expanded in 2009 and has become the Department of Education’s anti-bullying curriculum.
But students also expressed doubt that setting aside a day for anti-bullying awareness or putting up posters was enough. Aronno Shafi, a student at Stuyvesant High School, said, “I remember that [during “Respect for All”] week, a lot of jokes were being made: ‘I can’t be mean to you today, it’s Respect for All week.’ But when you go back into real life, no one remembers, ‘Oh yeah, I have to respect you.’ It’s do-whatever-your-impulse-says.”
What interventions make a difference? Schools that took bullying prevention seriously, according to Khin Mai Aung, Educational Equity Director at AALDEF, had incorporated anti-bullying measures into a curriculum, had student clubs that focused on the issue, or enlisted outside organizations or peer educators to provide anti-bias training. Other research (PDF) from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University shows that bullying prevention programs are more successful when they go beyond issuing warnings and also train students in new skills, from empathy and communication skills to how to be an effective bystander in a bullying situation.
Above all, neither the community organizations nor the students believe that harsher punishment for bullies is the answer. The report recommends restorative justice measures, along with methods that promote students’ social and emotional development. “Suspensions don’t work,” Shafi bluntly said.
Instead, many students believed that the most important work lay in fostering more understanding of cultural and religious difference. Tasmia Hussain, a student at Manhattan Hunter Science School, suggested, “Inform people about different cultures and different religious views. Even though you are categorized as white, inside that white, you are either Polish or Irish or something, you know? So if you learn about cultures, not only Asian-American cultures but also other groups, maybe you wouldn’t say ignorant things.”
Pawanpreet Singh echoed that sentiment: “In Global History class, if even talk about it, we spend 5 minutes on the Sikh faith. But we spend 1 to 2 days each on other religions.” Rather than talk about his faith or his beliefs, bullying had previously driven him to hide his difference. “I personally have denied my roots to fit in before. I also attempted to change the way I appeared. All to no avail, the bullying continued despite my actions to change myself … There are many cases were youth will try to change themselves, it’s pretty common.”
Of course, key to implementation of any anti-bullying program is the training of school staff and teachers. Currently, the regulation requires only one person per school to know and understand the rules regarding bullying. Moreover, school safety agents are not covered by the regulation, although both students and teachers report that they have seen school safety agents bully and harass students based on their identity.
According to a 2010 survey of New York City teachers by AALDEF, the Sikh Coalition and the New York Civil Liberties Union, teachers also identified the need for more training and more support from their school administration. In the survey of 198 teachers across 177 NYC schools, less than a third had received training on diversity, bias-based harassment, or the “Respect for All” curriculum.
Educators also reported frustration with superficial anti-bullying measures, emphasizing the need for a consistent school-wide approach and more leadership on the issue. Counselors reported receiving a handout in their mailbox and nothing more, while teachers spoke of administrations that left the bullying response to be resolved by individual teachers, leading to a case-by-case approach to the problem. As one teacher explained, “My school is rife with xenophobia, homophobia, and racism, particularly to students of perceived Mexican, continental African, and Arab/Muslim background. There are things I as a teacher can do in my classroom, but I have very little influence in holding my administration accountable if they do not agree with my suggestions.”
After five years, it is still unclear which city schools have model programs and which have the most room to improve. While the regulation requires the local DOE to collect the bullying data on an annual basis, it has not released any reports on bullying to the general public. Up until now, the three surveys assessing bias-based bullying in schools have been led by grassroots groups and non-profit organizations. That is why they are also calling for the department to provide annual public reports on the bullying data collected.
Earlier this year, the City Comptroller’s office also took the department to task for not updating its online reporting system to track bias-based bullying separately, relying instead on subjective judgments made by staff sifting through thousands of incident reports by hand. A DOE representative responded, “For the first time this year, as part of the state’s Dignity for All Students Act, we have updated the Discipline Code to separate out bullying from all harassment.” DOE spokesperson Marge Feinberg also clarified that this will be the first year in which the DOE’s reports to City Council will separate out bias-based bullying from other incidents.
The bullying-related suicides of two local 12-year-old students, Joel Morales of Harlem and Gabrielle Molina in Queens have raised tough questions about the DOE’s responsibility to prevent bullying, especially when the school and the DOE have been notified of the bullying prior to the suicides. What emerges from the report and from student testimonies is that there is still much room for improvement. As the school year begins, addressing bias-related bullying in New York City classrooms appears to be more critical than ever.
Sukjong Hong is a writer and artist based in Brooklyn, New York. Currently she is a Create Change fellow with the Laundromat Project, working on oral history projects to highlight the stories of Asian-American communities. She was a 2012-2013 Open City Creative Nonfiction Fellow with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. You can find her writing at Open City Magazine, Triple Canopy magazine, Foreign Policy in Focus, and The Feminist Wire. Twitter: @hongriver