Muslim family brings awareness to schools

GILROY DISTRICT RESPONDS TO BULLYING AND INTOLERANCE

A Christopher High School student is enjoying her school experience much more this year than last year, when she and her family say she was emotionally shaken from consistent bullying for her Islamic faith.

Now a sophomore, the student has not reported any more recent incidents of harassment at school—which her mother attributed to the response of the Gilroy Unified School District. The 16-year-old is even comfortable enough to participate in after-school activities, according to her mother.

That was not the case during her freshman year, which prompted the student, along with her family, to have a sit-down interview with National Geographic reporter Leila Fadel last year for a special series titled, “Muslims in America: A New Generation,” in the May issue of the National Geographic Magazine sent to subscribers last week. The article also was posted this month on National Public Radio’s website, npr.org.

The Dispatch is not identifying the girl, at the request of her mother.

The headline that accompanied Fadel’s piece, “Bullied For Its Faith, Muslim Family Fights Back Through Education,” did not paint a positive picture of Santa Clara County’s southernmost city. The experiences of Noshaba Afzal’s daughter at Christopher High shaped that headline. The family was interviewed more than a year ago.

“We were clear with the reporter that we were sharing our story to create awareness and create positive change,” Afzal explained. “We love the city of Gilroy and, for the most part, we haven’t experienced any negativity, but multiple incidents did occur at school.”

It was shortly after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, amid heightened tensions regarding race, ethnicity and religion that the Muslim student first encountered bullying from some teenage schoolmates, according to Afzal.

In one instance depicted in the magazine article, someone pinned a handwritten message on the girl’s backpack that read: “I like Trump, you’re fired.” In another, “kids whispered in her Spanish class: ‘Allahu Akbar’ — ‘God is great’ in Arabic —in a derogatory way,” Fadel wrote.

“Our daughter did not choose these situations,” Noshaba Afzal said. “I saw my daughter broken down to a level that no child should be and that no parent should witness.”

Afzal, who has a professional background in education herself, seemed most taken aback by an assignment from her daughter’s English class “involving a Fox News opinion piece that linked Islam, her religion as a whole to a horrific stoning in Afghanistan,” Fadel wrote.

The family immediately notified then-Christopher principal Paul Winslow (also the school’s former English department chair) and current Gilroy Unified Superintendent Deborah Flores of the bullying behavior of some students as well as the misguided English assignment.

“In GUSD, we have a strong commitment to making all of our schools safe, welcoming and free from harassment and bullying,” said Flores when asked about the situation. “We are grateful that (name deleted) approached our site administrators very promptly, permitting us to double our efforts to combat bullying.”

Flores, Winslow (now an assistant superintendent) and two Gilroy school board trustees met with Afzal shortly after being notified of the bullying behavior. Flores said those talks “led to great partnerships” between the district and the Islamic Networks Group as well as the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“Their presentations at school sites have been well received and have made a difference,” Flores added. “This is a top priority for us.”

Afzal agreed that her daughter’s school experience has improved since those dark days after the 2016 election.

“At this point of time, it’s old news,” said Afzal, who hopes the bullying behavior does not return with the release of the National Geographic article and a story in her hometown newspaper. However, she stood by the decision to take action because “we needed accountability and acknowledgement that this was not acceptable.”

The English assignment that “incited hate” from students toward the Muslim faith is no longer used at Christopher High, Flores confirmed. District-wide, Flores touted a number of anti-bullying programs that have been implemented, including Character Counts!, Olweus and Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports.

“We want our schools to be places where students feel comfortable coming to us when something happens that makes them feel unsafe or unwelcome,” Flores said. “That is what we have been teaching our students through these various programs.”

Afzal, who grew up in Central California, said she would have liked to see other measures taken but “accepted some of their steps” to help build tolerance, sensitivity and awareness within the schools.

“It took them a lot longer than what we wanted,” said Afzal, whose main objective, like any parent, was to protect her daughter. “She’s had a great year this year.”

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