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San Diego School District's Anti-Islamophobia Plan Sparks Controversy

The San Diego Unified school district's plans to acknowledge Islamic holidays, teach students about the religion in social studies classes, and create safe places on school grounds for Muslim students has made the district the latest epicenter in the debate over Islam in the United States—and the nation's classrooms.

The plan, which the district hopes to have in place by the start of the 2017-18 school year, has drawn praise from Muslim advocates and civil rights groups, but sharp criticism from conservative websites and some community members.

As a first step, leaders in the 132,000-student district will send a letter addressing prejudice against Muslims to staff and parents before Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, which begins in late May, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.

Schools will review and vet materials related to Muslim culture and history in media centers and provide resources and material for teachers. Social studies lessons may include more information on prominent Muslims and their impact on history and other steps to promote a more positive image of Islam.

The plan also calls for a different approach in how it will handle discipline for students who bully their Muslim peers. Rather than detention, school officials will work to establish a relationship between students who are bullied and those who do the bullying, the Union-Tribune reports.

During the presidential campaign, now-President Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigrants. Teaching Tolerance, an education project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other groups reported a rise in anti-Muslim harassment and spiking anxiety and fear among nonwhite students, which they tied to Trump's rhetoric on race, religion, and immigration.

Some residents in San Diego are concerned that including the history of Islam in social studies classes would result in teaching Islam. Some also thought including Muslim holidays on calendars meant schools would celebrate those holidays, the Union-Tribune reports.

While there are no firm estimates showing how many students in U.S. schools are Muslim, the numbers are growing. Arabic and Somali, languages commonly spoken by Muslim students in the United States, are among the top three languages for English-learners in the nation's schools.

The Associated Press reports that other urban districts, including Kansas City, Mo., and Oakland, Calif., have passed resolutions in support of Muslim students.

Some school systems have grappled with issues surrounding the treatment of Muslim students for decades. Education Week visited St. Cloud, Minn., in 2016 to explore the challenges that school district faced in adjusting to its growing Somali population.

In San Diego, the results of a 2015 survey conducted by Council for American-Islamic Relations, the nation's largest American Muslim civil rights advocacy group, sparked the effort to create a welcoming environment for all students.

The survey results revealed that 55 percent of American Muslim students California reported that they were bullied because of their religion. In light of the findings, the district's school board directed the staff to partner with CAIR to address the issue.

For Further Reading

As Trump Weighs Fate of Immigrant Students, Schools Ponder Their Roles

Educators and Advocates Brace for Harsher Stance on Immigration Under Trump

Election's Intolerant Tone Stokes Fears for Latino Students

Immigrant Influxes Put U.S. Schools to the Test

Schools Adapting to Muslim Holy Month

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