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Diversity Education: An Investment You Can't Afford to Delay

School districts need to invest in thoughtful strategies for addressing students' religious differences before prejudice and bullying create an expensive legal problem, says Marisa Fasciano, Education Program Associate, Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.

by guest blogger Marisa Fasciano

As reported in The New York Times, a judge recently approved a $4.48 million settlement agreement between New York's Pine Bush School District and five Jewish students who were victims of horrific and prolonged anti-Semitic bullying by schoolmates. While the district defended itself in the lawsuit and was not required by the settlement to admit fault, it's clear that its efforts to address the bullying suffered by the plaintiffs (and likely others) did not protect them from scarring emotional damage. This case boldly underscores the importance of implementing a comprehensive and proactive strategy for addressing religious diversity before a crisis occurs, a crisis that could substantially drain resources and damage reputations. 

Mozaic without kids--feel free to distribute.jpgIt's not the first time that legal action has been taken against a school district for failing to respond properly to religious harassment, and trends indicate that it's probably not the last. In 2013, the United States Department of Justice reached a settlement agreement with Georgia's DeKalb County School District following their investigation into a complaint brought by The Sikh Coalition. The complaint alleged that a middle school student suffered repeated verbal and physical abuse by schoolmates because of his Sikh faith. He was called "Aladdin" and "terrorist" because of his turban and told to "go back to his country."

Student attitudes like these shouldn't come as a surprise given the prejudice and hate that still exists in society at large. Examples abound, such as when members of The Loyal White Knights, a North Carolina-based KKK faction, rallied at the South Carolina statehouse in July to protest the removal of the Confederate flag. It's important to keep in mind that schools don't exist in a vacuum. Is it a coincidence that, in the mid-1970s, Pine Bush was home to a KKK chapter president and that his wife, also in the KKK, was on the school board during that time? 

On the other hand, a school's lack of control over community attitudes isn't a valid excuse for indifference or halfhearted responses to bullying. In November 2013, Tanenbaum CEO Joyce Dubensky wrote a letter to the Times editor in response to earlier reports of the anti-Semitism in Pine Bush. She argued that, "While educators can't fix religious prejudice across society all alone, they can assume responsibility within their sphere of influence."  

From state, city, and district policies, to school-wide programs, to classroom curricula, respect for religious differences can and should be promoted at all levels. Here's how:

At the State Level
There is no federal law that specifically applies to bullying, so states need to strengthen and enforce their own anti-bullying legislation that includes religious identity as a protected group. According to StopBullying.gov, all 50 states have enacted anti-bullying laws (in their state education codes and elsewhere) and/or policies (that provide guidance to districts and schools), but these measures vary in strength and precision. Washington state, for example, offers a particularly comprehensive framework that can be used as a model for other states, as well as for administrators who wish to create anti-bullying policies in their districts and schools.

At the City/District Level
We applaud efforts like the New York City Department of Education's Respect for All initiative, which was expanded in response to attacks against Sikh students in Queens schools. This initiative provides professional development and instructional resources to K-12 school staff, as well as direct services to students. It requires the display of posters throughout each school that define prohibited behaviors and include  contact information for reporting incidents of harassment, discrimination, intimidation, and/or bullying. 

In Your School and Classroom
In addition to thoroughly investigating and responding to incidents, school administrators can take preventive measures, like adopting school-wide strategies and curricula that promote respectful and inclusive learning environments. Tanenbaum's Seven Principles for Inclusive Education, Common Core-aligned curricula, and free lesson plans combat prejudice and encourage respectful curiosity about religious diversity.  

Administrators can also offer trainings to faculty and staff that increase awareness of bias and include practical resources for swiftly transferring the learning to students.  If time and budgets don't allow for lengthier, in-person trainings, then webinars are a good alternative.  Show them at regularly scheduled meetings of school personnel to fulfill professional development requirements and trigger dynamic discussion.  Recordings of Tanenbaum's webinar series with Teaching Tolerance, Religious Diversity in the Classroom, can be watched free of charge.

By integrating the topic of religion into classroom content when appropriate, teachers can help students see religious difference as a normal part of life, rather than something to be feared and targeted. Additional organizations that provide educator resources include:

If your district or school is interested in inclusive and bully-free learning environments, why wait until religious prejudice becomes a problem that can't be ignored?  Invest in diversity education now so that your students and your schools don't have to pay later. 

Here are some of Tanenbaum's previous blog posts and articles that provide a rationale and guidance for teaching about this complex and sometimes uncomfortable topic:

Connect with Tanenbaum, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter. 

This piece originally appeared on Tanenbaum's  blog.

 Photo courtesy of Tackan Elementary School. Tackan Elementary School on Long Island is taking steps to promote respect for religious diversity.

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