Two non-profit organizations have joined six parents in lawsuit against the San Diego Unified School District over the education authorities’ use of an “initiative to combat Islamophobia” in its schools. According to Frank Xu, who presides over the San Diego Asian Americans for Equality -- a plaintiff in the suit -- “Students of all faiths face daily bullying, but instead of protecting all religious students, the school district has selected Muslim students to receive special protection and resources.”
In April, the school district supervisors voted 4-0 in April to implement a program and policies intended to address alleged bullying of Muslim students in schools. The district cooperated with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) -- an unindicted conspirator in a federal investigation into Muslim terrorism -- to conclude upon solutions to the supposed problem.
Among the recommendations: a review of school library books by Muslim authorities; providing Islamic training and materials to teachers; “safe space” for Muslims; marking Muslim holy days on school calendars; teaching about Islam in social studies classes.
Plans include ensuring Muslim holidays are marked on calendars for educators to plan lessons and activities accordingly, reviewing books in school libraries that center on Islamic culture, providing training and materials for staff, creating “safe spaces” for Muslim students, and adding to current lessons about Islam to social studies classes.
The school district has created a page on its website to explain its actions. “This initiative to combat Islamophobia is focused on promoting awareness and understanding among students of different cultures, with the intent of eliminating the fear faced by children,” it wrote. “The district takes seriously the bullying of any student, and we have programs and procedures already in place to address bullying. The reason we are calling particular attention to the bullying of Muslim students at this time is that we have received reports from students and families who have expressed concerns about the safety of their students,” the district said.
The website stated that the district is not teaching religion nor does it endorse any particular religion. Moreover, it said that is not paying CAIR for its consultations. “The Council on Islamic Relations (CAIR) has been very generous in offering its time, advice and guidance to the district on ways to prevent bullying against Muslim students,” declared the website. “However, they have not been paid, nor do we intend to contract with CAIR. The District’s anti-bullying program has been developed and implemented by District staff.”
The website declared, “Because CAIR has broad reach, it was helpful to have input on what the specific concerns of our Muslim community are and on what actions might serve to address those concerns. That has been the extent of our partnership. CAIR has not contributed to our curriculum.”
On May 22, however, the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund filed a legal challenge against the initiative on behalf of the groups Citizens for Quality Education, and Asian Americans for Equality, as well as six parents. The law firm says that the school district, despite its disavowals, has elevated Islam by singling it out instead of enacting a program to target bullying in general—no matter what the reason. “Defendants do not have any pedagogical basis to collaborate with a religious organization to enact, implement, and enforce policies, practices, and acts that favor a particular religious sect. Therefore, Plaintiffs object to the use of taxpayer funds to enact, implement, and enforce the Anti-Islamophobia Initiative,” read documents filed in the lawsuit. “Defendants have specifically targeted religion for disparate treatment and have established policies, practices, and acts that permit Muslim students to gain special access to Defendants’ religion-based anti-bullying / anti-discrimination forum, while denying non-Muslim students access to the same forum,” it wrote.
According to the court filing, the plaintiffs in the case say that the district’s cooperation with CAIR is an inadmissible entanglement of religion and government. “Plaintiffs do not wish for their children, as non-Muslims, to be accused of bias and bullying by the School District and CAIR if they express viewpoints or beliefs that may conflict with the School District’s and/or CAIR’s arbitrary, de facto interpretations of ‘bias’ and ‘bullying,'” the suit further outlines.
School board president Richard Barrera wrote an op-ed for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Titled “In taking stand against hate, San Diego Unified exemplifies civility,” Barrera wrote: “Teaching students about different cultures and religions is not a violation of the First Amendment.” He continued, “Teaching tolerance is the best way to protect the First Amendment, and tolerance is at the heart of San Diego Unified’s work to protect all students.”
“To provide all our students with the opportunities they deserve, San Diego Unified will continue its work to protect all our students from bullying. The volume of hate mail and mean-spirited online posts is proof this work is both necessary and right. If adults in our community feel comfortable attacking public employees for trying to protect children, just imagine what those children must be facing from their own peers,” Barrera asserted.
Barrera has a history of community organizing and labor unionism. He has served as Secretary-Treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, and currently serves as a leader with the United Food and Commercial Workers. Barrera disinvited Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to visit the school district after fielding complaints from teachers’ unions. Barrera and trustee John Lee Evans formulated a resolution to invite De Vos to “visit the district on a fact-finding mission to learn what the school district is doing to create quality public schools in every neighborhood, so that she can collect the data needed that will allow her to base her decisions on what is best for students rather than on any political ideology.”
However, in February, Barrera apparently changed his mind about co-sponsoring the proposed resolution intended to “help her learn all the things that public schools are doing well” and to “challenge her views openly and in a public setting.” Once he had his change of heart, Barrera said that it was the “wrong time” to engage DeVos in dialogue. Apologizing to all who had been “excluded from the conversation,” Barrera said, “Now is the time for those of us who believe in public education to stand together and confront the threat clearly posed by the DeVos ideology.”