The Bullying of Religious Minorities in Schools: Consequences and Solutions

By Ameena Jandali and Henry Millstein, Content Managers.

This article is published in the January/ February 2019 issue of Social Education Magazine by the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS).

Bullying is a prevalent and growing problem in American schools, impacting students of all ages and backgrounds. Bullying is defined as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”1 Students are bullied for diverse reasons, including physical appearance, such as being overweight; the way they dress; or unchangeable factors, such as gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or religion.

The different types of bullying include physical bullying, which consists of engaging physically with another student to harm her or him; verbal bullying,which involves the use of words or gestures to harm, shame, or threaten another student and is the most common type of bullying; indirect or relational bullying,which isolates another student from the group (for example by ignoring, excluding,publicly embarrassing, or spreading rumors about him or her); and cyberbullying, which targets a fellow student using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies, or mobile phones.

Frequency of Bullying

While different studies show varying rates of bullying, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that almost one out of every four students (22%) report being bullied during the school year. A 2011 study by the National Education Association and Johns Hopkins University found that 41% of school staff witnessed bullying frequently, while 45% of teachers said that a student had reported bullying incidents to them within the past month. One of the challenges of school bullying is that it is generally not reported.According to a 2010 study by Regional Education Laboratory (REL) Northeast and Islands, survey data show that only 36% of bullying victims reported their experience to a teacher or another adult at their school while 64% of students did not. This may be due to the fear of recrimination from peers that may only serve to increase the bullying.

Impact of Bullying

Bullying impacts all involved parties,including not only the perpetrator and victim but also the students witnessing it. Bullying threatens a sense of security and well being for all students. In the worst cases, it can cause physical injury and even lead to suicide. More commonly, bullied students can suffer from a number of behavioral and emotional problems, including a higher risk for depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, and poor school adjustment than students who are not bullied. Additionally, bullying increases school absenteeism and even school violence. According to a study in the Journal of Adolescence, bullying is linked to “antisocial behavior, low prosocial behavior, school failure, and substance abuse” for the bully and “psychosomatic complaints, school absenteeism, low self-esteem, anxiety, loneliness, and depression” for the victim. Youth who bully others are at increased risk for substance use, academic problems, and violence later in adolescence and adulthood.

Students at Risk of Being Bullied

While there are numerous reasons that students are bullied and anybody can be a victim of bullying, some students are more likely to be bullied than others. They may include youth with the following characteristics, among others:

  • Students who are perceived to be weak, have low self-esteem, or lack confidence.
  • Students perceived as “different” from their peers, such as those who are overweight, new to a school, shy or quiet, or do not dress “cool.”
  • Students who have few friends or who are unpopular.
  • Students belonging to an ethnic or religious minority.

Bullying of South Asian, Hindu, Sikh, Arab, and Muslim Students

Since 9/11, and particularly in recent years, South Asian, Hindu, Sikh, Arab, and Muslim students have been specifically targeted for bullying. This is due to a number of factors, including the fact that they are ethnically, racially, and religiously distinct and may have names and traditions and speak languages that are viewed as foreign or strange. According to a survey of 335 Hindu American middle and high school students in late 2015, “one out of three respondents said they had been bullied for their religious beliefs, while about half of the total sample size indicated feelings of awkwardness or social isolation because of their religious identity. About one in four respondents said they had been bullied within the past year, with about a third saying those who bullied them were ‘making fun of Hindu traditions.’”

The situation for Sikh students is equally troubling. According to 2012 and 2013 surveys, over 50% of Sikh children experienced school bullying with significantly higher numbers (67%) for turbaned Sikh children, as illustrated by this example: “I was in California like seven, six years ago. It was me and my brother–we had jooras (uncut hair tied in a topknot) … Just us two were Sikh …For two years we got bullied, came home crying every day. Mom got tired of it. She went to school. They didn’t do anything about it. Teachers were racist out there …I was in 5th grade, and my dad took us to a barber shop, and he was like, ‘It’s today.’ My mom was crying, my dad was crying. It was the day we just (took our patka) off, and we cut our hair. We went back to school and we still got bullied. And we had to move out to Indiana, just because  of the bullies (in California). I mean, we got bullies out here too.”

For Muslim students, religious, cultural, and ethnic differences are compounded by the ongoing association with terrorism and violence. In fact, bullying generally spikes after world events relating to conflict and terrorism. For example, after the death of Osama bin Laden, one study found that the prevalence of bullying against Muslim students rose. One participant in the study reported that she was repeatedly called a “terrorist” and asked if she was sad that her so-called “leader” had died. The study reports that other Muslim students had similar experiences after the death of Saddam Hussein.10 The prospect of bullying after a terrorist attack causes increased anxiety for Muslim students and a fear of coming to school after an attack or event involving Muslims.11 Common slurs that have long been used against Muslim students include “terrorist,” “camel jockey,” and “rag head.”

The rise of ISIS and ISIS-related terror attacks in the United States and abroad, and resultant non-stop media coverage about them, combined with virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric by political figures, has greatly increased fear and bigotry against Muslims. Even prior to the Paris and San Bernardino attacks in late 2015 this resulted in a spike in reports of bullying of Muslim students. A 2017 survey by CAIR reported that 53% of Muslim students in California—one of the most liberal and diverse areas in the country report that students at school are made fun of, verbally insulted or abused for being Muslim; this is twice the rate at which students in the U.S. overall report having been bullied. Fifty-seven percent of respondents reported seeing offensive online posts by peers; 26% reported cyberbullying; 19% reported physical harm or harassment; and 36% of hijab-wearing girls reported having their hijab offensively touched or pulled.

Verbal harassment associating Muslim students with terrorists or terrorism generally spikes after a terror attack..Following the 2015 San Bernardino attacks in Long Beach, a California student was asked “Are you part of the 9/11 or are you ISIS?” “Did you ever kill anyone?” “Are you going to bomb this place?”  In another incident in California in 2015,Rasmia Shuman remembers when the schoolyard conversation among her ninth-grade peers in Redwood City turned to the Islamic State, the extremist group commonly known as ISIS. “I kind of knew it would go bad because I was the only Muslim in the group,” said Rasmia, a 15-year-old sophomore at Summit Charter School. As the talk escalated, a classmate pointed at Rasmia, who wears the traditional Muslim headscarf or hijab, and simply said, “You’re ISIS.” Then he walked away. The verbal attack was a gut punch to the soft-spoken teen, but across California, such harassment is not uncommon for students who share her religion.

The impact of this bullying and the anxiety it produces can be profound, yet students are often afraid to tell parents or other adults for fear of repercussions, increased harassment, or ostracism. This is particularly true with young victims, who are often unsure or ambivalent about their identity. Bullying, especially if ongoing, results in a sense of shame for the victim and, as previously mentioned, can have long-term consequences, including an increased risk of depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties,and poor school adjustment.

Classroom Discussions and Bullying

Verbal bullying of at-risk students also follows current event discussions in which the class discusses events relating to Muslim extremists or terrorists. For example, a Muslim student in New York reported being asked “Why are all Muslims terrorists?” after learning about Boko Haram massacres. She felt helpless to defend herself because she felt that “About 90 percent of the kids in my class feel that way.”Despite textbook publishers’ greater attention in recent years to accuracy in portraying Islam and other non-Western religions, many teachers continue to use biased or unbalanced materials when teaching about Islam, 9/11, or terrorism. Students often report feeling targeted or marginalized during classroom discussions about Islam and Muslims, where they are called upon to be “experts” or viewed as the “other” in discussions about terrorism.

Classroom resources or discussions about the religion of at-risk students can be humiliating, create a sense of shame, and even lead to bullying. According to the 2015 survey, “More than three out of five Hindu students said that their schools focused on caste and Hinduism, including claims about the religion and Indian social practice that have been long debunked. About one in eight respondents said their teachers made sarcastic remarks about Hinduism in front of class. About one out of every four respondents surveyed said she/he was put on the spot or singled out by a teacher when the section on Hinduism was discussed.” Muslim students have also complained of teacher bias in teaching about the religion, extremism/terrorism, or related topics. The following incident reflects a trend reported by Muslim students across the country who complain of both the use of biased teaching materials and teacher prejudice. In late 2015, “A high school teacher in Richmond, Texas, sent all his students home with a new study guide he had created, with the title, ‘Islam/Radical Islam (Did You Know).’ In the study guide, which had not been approved by the school, the economics teacher presented fictional statements as if they were facts, including, ‘38% of Muslims believe people that leave the faith should be executed.’ The teacher also wrote up instructions for what to do ‘if taken hostage by radical Islamists.’”

Teacher Bias

In addition to the use of biased teaching materials, another concern is bias by a teacher, administrator, or staff member. This may be subtle or subconscious bias, such as mispronouncing a student’s name on the first day of school which, even if not deliberate, can set the stage for the rest of the year. Muslim students also complain about teachers’ general interactions with the students, including failure to respond to their complaints of bullying, or making inappropriate or derogatory comments, such as a teacher in Florida who called a 14-year-old Muslim high school student a “rag-head Taliban” in March, 2015  or a teacher in Texas who told a Muslim student that “we all think you are a terrorist.” Bias or derision by a teacher can in turn lead to bullying by students as in the case of a teacher who told a Muslim student, “‘I can’t wait until Trump is elected. He’s going to deport all you Muslims. Muslims shouldn’t be given visas. They’ll probably take away your visa and deport you. You’re going

to be the next terrorist, I bet.’ On the bus ride home, one student’s classmates mimicked his teacher’s anti-Muslim comments, taunting him about the fact that his visa would be revoked because he is a Muslim, calling him a ‘terrorist,’and accusing him of planning to blow up the bus.”  This and other incidents by the same teacher are the basis for an October 28, 2016 letter of complaint and request for investigation from the ACLU to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. According to the 2017 CAIR report, 38% of Muslim students experienced discrimination by teachers or school administrators.

Students who experience teacher bias may feel afraid or embarrassed to report the problem to an adult, even their parents, for fear that they will react by calling and admonishing the teacher or staff member, which could make matters worse. Students are left with few or no options to address or even discuss an issue that is making their life miserable.

Addressing the Problem

Bullying Prevention

While bullying is a pervasive problem, there are steps that schools and educators can take which greatly reduce and prevent bullying. The first step is to recognize that bullying exists in one’s school or classroom. The second step is to implement a zero-tolerance policy for

bullying, with clear and strictly enforced consequences as soon as bullying occurs.If the bullying continues, there should be mediation involving all parties, including the parents, who should help address this issue with their children. There are also a number of steps which schools can take to proactively prevent or reduce bullying. They include the following:

  • Determine the extent of the problem by surveying school staff, students, and parents to assess the frequency of bullying. This will help guide and inform prevention efforts and increase the likelihood of their success.
  • Familiarize school staff with school and district policies on bullying. Since the successful implementation of any new policy depends on the buy-in of all involved, it is important to engage and solicit the input of school staff first and ensure that they take ownership of and are committed to the policy so that it is effective.
  • Based on the policy, develop a school-wide code of conduct, which clearly defines unacceptable behavior and its consequences. If needed, increase adult supervision in hallways, the cafeteria, stairwells, and locker rooms, where bullying often takes place.
  • Promote school-wide programs and activities that encourage tolerance and diversity and help to create a safe space for all students to learn and grow. These can include:
    • School-wide anti-bullying posters, including those created by the students.
    • School-wide assemblies or classroom discussions with anti-bullying experts who address the issue of bullying to raise awareness and provide solutions.
    • Guest speakers in classrooms or assemblies to address common stereotypes and misconceptions about marginalized groups to reduce bias.
    • Classroom discussions, in which students relate and discuss their own experience with discrimination or bullying to help create empathy and then brainstorm possible solutions.
    • Encourage students to initiate and implement a bullying prevention program.
    • Programs through the PTA that target parents by informing them of the school’s anti-bullying policies and programs and getting them on board.
    • Exhibit sensitivity in classroom discussions about little-known faiths or culture, the war on terror, or any other conflict concerning people of Muslim-majority regions, especially during a time of crisis. This will help reduce the potential for bullying.
  • Work with bullies directly to:
    • Make it clear that their behavior is unacceptable and needs to stop immediately or there will be consequences.
    • Follow through with consequences such as taking away privileges, informing parents, and more aggressive punishments if the behavior continues.
    • Help them to recognize how their behavior is making the victim feel and to reflect on why they are behaving like this.
    • Encourage them to perform an act of kindness, to feel better about themselves and to gain self-confidence.Bullies often lack self-esteem or self-confidence.
    • Engage their parents in these efforts and work together to reduce negative behaviors.Also include parents in mediation efforts between students with long-term conflicts.
  • Most kids are neither a bully nor a victim, but are often a witness to bullying.How bystanders respond to bullying impacts whether or not bullying is tolerated. Encourage witnesses to help stop bullying by:
    • Alerting an adult that bullying is about to occur or has already occurred.
    • Showing support for the victim rather than the bully or requesting others to also support the victim by being upstanders, i.e., standing up for the person being bullied.
    • Not repeating gossip even if it is true, as it can hurt others and lead to harassment and bullying.

If students are being bullied, help them to stop bullying by:

  • Encouraging them to report bullying to an adult whenever it occurs.
  • Providing tools to push back against bullying such as walking away.

Addressing Teacher Bias

It is important for teachers and staff to acknowledge and address their own personal views about any group or issues that might compromise their academic responsibility to be objective and neutral in their teaching and interaction with all students. Misconceptions, stereotypes, and bias should be addressed through proactive efforts such as staff sensitivity trainings for teachers and faculty as well as continuous follow-up with teachers and staff. When teaching about less known religions or discussing current events, teachers should make special efforts to ensure that these discussions are balanced and show sensitivity to the feelings of students who are associated with the topic being discussed. Teachers or staff members who exhibit bias towards any student or who make inappropriate comments about a student’s religion or practices should be dealt with in a manner consonant with their misconduct.

No student should suffer from bullying, bias, or discrimination; it must be a school’s top priority that this behavior should not occur and that it should be swiftly addressed when it does. Only then will our schools be places of safety, growth and learning for all American students.

  2. “Student Reports of Bullying and Cyber-Bullying: Results From the 2013 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey,” National Center for Education Statistics (April,2015), 5:
  3. Michaela Gulemetova, Darrel Drury, and Catherine P. Bradshaw, “National Education Association Bullying Study,” Colleagues 6, no. 2 (2011).
  4. A. Petrosino, S. Guckenburg, J. DeVoe, and T. Hanson, “What Characteristics of Bullying, Bullying Victims, and Schools are Associated with Increased Reporting of Bullying to School Officials?” Issues & Answers Report, REL 2010–No. 092 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands, 2010),
  5. “Understand Bullying Fact Sheet,” CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control Division of Violence Prevention, prevention/pdf/bullying_factsheet.pdf
  6. Rebecca Bondü, Tobias Rothmund, and Mario Gollwitzer, “Mutual Long-Term Effects of School Bullying, Victimization, and Justice Sensitivity in Adolescents,” Journal Of Adolescence 48 (2016): 62–72.
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Understanding Bullying Fact Sheet,”
  8. Murali Balaji, Raman Khanna, Aditi Dinakar, Harsh Voruganti, and Kavita Pallod, “Classroom Subjected Bullying and Bias Against Hindu Students in American Schools,” Hindu American Foundation. Executive Summary, ExecutiveSummary.pdf
  9. The Sikh Coalition, “‘Go Home, Terrorist’”: A Report on the Bullying of Sikh American School Children” (March 1, 2014) resources/go-home-terrorist-a-report-on-the-bullyingof- sikh-american-school-children/
  10. David R. Dupper, Shandra Forrest-Bank, and Autumn Lowry-Carusillo, “Experiences of Religious Minorities in Public School Settings: Findings from Focus Groups Involving Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Unitarian Universalist Youths,” Children & Schools 37, no. 1 (2015): 37–45 9p.CINAHL Plus with Full Text.
  11. Donna St. George, “During a School Year of Terrorist Attacks, Muslim Students Report Bullying,” The Washington Post (June 14, 2016), 8758-d58e76e11b12_story.html
  12. Council on American-Islamic Relations, Unshakable: The Bullying of Muslim Students and the Unwavering Movement to Eradicate It (October 2017), 14-15.
  13. Kristin Rizga, “This Is What It’s Like to Be a Muslim Schoolkid in America Right Now,” Mother Jones (December 15, 2015),
  14. Jill Tucker, “Study finds Majority of Muslims Have Faced Bullying at School,” San Francisco Chronicle (October 30, 2015),
  15. “Understand Bullying Fact Sheet,” CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control Division of Violence Prevention,
  16. “Extreme Prejudice,” Teaching Tolerance (Fall2015), fall-2015/feature/extreme-prejudice
  17. Balaji, Khanna, Dinakar, Voruganti, and Pallod, “Classroom Subjected Bullying and Bias against Hindu Students in American Schools.”
  18. Rachel Bertsche, “Teacher Under Fire for Anti- Muslim Lesson,” Yahoo News (April 9, 2015) http://
  19. Ann Henson Feltgen, “Weston Teacher Faces Discipline over Alleged Slur of Muslim Student,” Miami Herald (March 2, 2015), www.miamiherald. com/news/local/community/broward/article 11924603.html
  20. Dean Obeidallah, “Anti-Muslim School Bullying:Sometimes, It’s Even the Teachers Doing It,” The Daily Beast (May 17, 2016), It-s-even-the-teachers-doing-it.html
  21. Heather L. Weaver, “Teacher to Muslim Refugee Student: You’re a Terrorist, and I Can’t Wait Until Donald Trump Deports All You Muslims,” ACLU. muslims-365ee45a2282#.wm5v1vuwn
  22. “Noor Complaint to the Department of Justice Requesting an Investigation Pursuant to Title IV” (October 28, 2016), noor-complaint-department-justice-requesting investigation- Pursuant-title-iv
  23. Council on American-Islamic Relations, Unshakable: The Bullying of Muslim Students and the Unwavering Movement to Eradicate It 14–15.
  24. Adapted from Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati’s Muslim Mothers Against Violence (MMAV) and Islamic Networks Group (ING) Bullying Prevention Guide.
    (registration required)