Arab and Muslim Students Targeted for Racist Harassment

Editor's Note: Robin Chen Delos is the news editor for the newspaper at South Lakes High School in Reston, Virginia, a suburb of Washington D.C. This spring she wrote a cover story about the harassment of Arab and Muslim students at South Lake High. The day before the paper was scheduled to go to print, the article was recalled, censored by the school administartion, because, as Robin says, "the principal thought it would make the school look bad." (see the sidebar for more on censorship in high school)

Here is the story, in its complete form.

Since September 11, Arab and Muslim students at South Lakes High School in Washington suburb Reston, Virginia, encounter hatred -- from dirty looks to death threats -- directed against them solely because of their race and religion.

One South Lakes Junior, Arab-Muslim Mohammad Chowhan said students call him a "terrorist."
"People who call Muslims degrading names associate terrorism with being Arab," he said. "They always want to think that someone from the Middle East did something bad." But many of the hate crimes that have been committed nationally this year have been done by white racists against Arabs and other people of color as scapegoats for the September 11 attacks.

Hate crimes are crimes committed against individuals because of the individual's race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

Many Arab and Muslim students at South Lakes say they face verbal and physical intimidation, including pushing and shoving in school hallways.

Intimidation based on race is happening nation-wide. Last year in Fairfax County, Virginia, hate events increased more than four fold from the year 2000-- from 31 reported incidents to 137. The actual number of hate events is probably much higher. The Fairfax Country Police Department said a major reason for the dramatic increase in hate crimes is the post September 11 backlash against Arabs and Muslims.

The alarming jump in hate incidents locally illustrates the rising racial intolerance happening in high schools and communities nationwide.


Acording to the Supreme court Hazelwood ruling in the late '80s, principals do have the power to review and censor high school newspapers.

After Hazelwood, students retain First Amendment rights in the schools, but this standard (see Tinker) applies only to non-school-sponsored speech--"personal expression that happens to occur on the school premises." Court in the Hazelwood case gave discretion to school officials to:

1. Serve as publisher. (The Court equated publisher with editor-in-chief, but ignored the implied fiscal and legal liability that comes when one exercises such control.)
2. Censor, if there is a "reasonable" educational justification, any expression that does not properly reflect the school's educational mission. The Court called it reasonable to censor a newspaper story that school officials believe is not "fair," expression that deals with "sensitive topics," and content that is "ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences."
3. Use this power to control expression through any school-sponsored activity. Legal distinctions between class-produced and extra-curricular publications disappeared. However, underground publications produced without teacher assistance remain subject only to the Tinker standard.
4. Review student expression in advance, even when no guidelines define what will or will not be censored.

Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills



South Lakes Sophomore Nadia Akhtar, who is half white and half Pakistani, found a death threat in her locker. "I got it a few days after the attacks on the twin towers. It was really random."

She'd gone to her locker and found "a note sticking out. I thought it was from one of my friends," she said. After she read it, she says she was "in shock for like five minutes." It was something she had never expected. She told subschool principal Dave Dalton who filed a report with the police.

Akhtar's mom picked her up early that day because she "thought I was not safe at school," Akhtar said.

Akhtar wants people to learn the facts about Middle Easterners. "Our race as a whole is not responsible. The people who attacked America are a small extreme group."

In the weeks following September 11, Akhtar "would get weird looks from people ... and people pushed me in the hallways," she said. She still does not know who wrote the death threat.

Despite the harassments, subschool principal Bruce Butler says he is proud of how school employees responded to September 11. "They worked with their kids to make sure that because of the actions of a few, a greater group was not labeled," he said.

But Junior Maryam Mohammadkhani said that "a couple teachers were... saying all Muslim people are terrorists." She told a teacher she trusted about it but says she doesn't know if he did anything.

Though she thinks the school tried to discourage harassment, she says "they should be doing more." She suggested the school have Muslims come to classes to discuss Islam.

School Resource Officer Dave Tipton said that only two harassments were reported to him. The school did not classify them as hate crimes. Tipton is angry that students didn't report other incidents. "For people to say that it's happening and for them not to tell us, that's 100% wrong," he said. He wants all students to feel safe at South Lakes, but "If they don't come and tell anybody there's nothing we can do."

However "it's not true they can't do anything until it's reported," Devin Burghart of the Center for New Community said. "It's the responsibility of teachers to gather information [about harassments] and deal with it before a crisis situation arises."

"Nationally hate crimes are under-reported," Burghart said. The students‚ fear that the situation will get worse or they won't be taken seriously are major reasons for the under-reporting. Many times students do not know who to tell. He stressed that administrators make it "very clear that they provide a safe space for students to come and speak about things they're dealing with." He said that schools should create hotlines that students can call to report harassment.

Most effective in combating hate in schools is naming the problem, educating students about it, and organizing them against bigotry, Burghart said.

Junior Massouda Rafiqi is an Afghani American whose relative was almost beaten because he looks Arab. She revealed the fear of racism that many Muslims and Arabs at South Lakes and across the country feel, saying "I'm scared of going on a plane, train, or bus - any form of transportation - because of all the harassments [of Muslims and Arabs]. I'm scared someone might get up and do something to me."

When students see their peers harassed because they are Arab or Muslim, "they should stand up for them and tell them this is America and this is the wrong thing...they have no right to do that," Rafiqi said.

Harassment of Muslims may not just be random incidents. For the past year in the Reston-Herndon area, neo-Nazi hate group the National Alliance repeatedly distributed hate literature, according to the Anti Defamation League. The National Alliance boasts in the Washington Post of targeting Reston area high school and college students for recruitment.

Many experts believe that the National Alliance is America's most violent neo-Nazi group. "White hate groups are a domestic face of terrorism. They are terribly under-reported despite the fact that these groups have been implicated in numerous acts of violence," said local hate crimes expert Douglas Calvin.

After September 11 the ADAMS Muslim Center in neighboring Sterling Virginia was vandalized with anti-Muslim graffiti probably meant to terrorize Muslims. Many of the South Lakes Muslim students pray at this mosque.

The death threat Akhtar found in her locker is a form of terror. If not actively combated, the anti-Muslim names Rafiqi was called "can lead to increased hate crimes that can devastate a diverse community like Reston," Calvin said. "It is the moral responsibility of all people in the community to stand together against hatred and intolerance."

Additional Resources
The Center for New Community Building Democracy Initiative-- They monitor and educate about hate crimes and hate groups.

Turn It Down-- A Campaign Against White Power Music

The Youth Leadership Support Network Page --They educate and give workshops on racism, diversity, and hate groups.

Robin Chen Delos, 19, is an investigative reporter and community organizer. She works with the Youth Leadership Support Network, an arts and education violence prevention organization in D.C. She broadcasts with D.C. Pacifica station WPFW's youth show. She is a senior at South Lakes High School.

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