By David Sheridan
When high school senior Bayan Zehlif in Rancho Cucamonga, CA opened her yearbook and saw that the name under her picture read “Isis Phillips,” she was stunned. Her first instinct was to brush it off, but she couldn’t. After all, “Isis” is now a slur hurled at Muslim students.
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So with the help of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Bayan Zehlif spoke out about the bullying of Muslim students. After the media broadcast her story, Bayan received many messages of support. But she was also attacked on social media, including by some of her classmates. And when a “We Support Bayan” poster was put up at her school, it was ripped down as some students cheered.
Bayan Zehlif’s ordeal focused attention on the bullying and harassment of Muslim students and students perceived to be Muslim in California; and it gave a boost to the Safe Place to Learn Act which was already in the works.
The legislation also received a lift from the moving testimony provided by Muslim and Sikh students and educators as well as from the one-on-one conversations students and educators held with legislators. (Sikhs are not Muslims—the Sikh faith, the fifth largest in the world, is distinct from Islam. Nonetheless, Sikhs are often targets of anti-Muslim violence, bullying and prejudice.)
When San Francisco social studies teacher Fakhra Shah and another educator took 25 of their students to Sacramento for CAIR’s “Muslims at the Capitol Day,” they met with their State Senator Mark Leno about the need for the Safe Place to Learn Act. “The students did most of the talking,” says Shah, “and they were very effective. They know about bullying.”
The Safe Place to Learn Act is in fact an example of the power of students and educators when they band together with civil rights organizations—in this instance, CAIR, the Sikh Coalition and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-California.
Assemblyman Das Williams, a former teacher, authored the bill, and he shepherded it through the legislature; and Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law. “Every student has the right to a safe and nurturing learning environment. This bill provides educators, students and parents with resources to help ensure that right,” says Charmaine Banther, a high school computer science teacher in Union City, CA.
Banther hopes other states will pass similar legislation, “because the bullying of Sikh, Muslim and South Asian students is happening across the country,”