No one should feel excluded or face harassment at school, yet all too often, students experience this as their peers – and sometimes adults – alienate them for any number of reasons, including religion. Recognizing the frequency and severity of such instances of bullying, the New York City Department of Education and City Council launched the Respect for All initiative in 2010 with the goal of “making NYC public schools safe and supportive for all students.” The initiative includes an annual Respect for All Week, observed this year from February 13th through February 17th. Tanenbaum is proud to offer a range of materials for all grade levels to help students, educators and community members explore and discuss respect and diversity, including religious diversity.
Recent events illustrate the great need for school communities to proactively work to eliminate issues of disrespect, misunderstanding and closed-mindedness while creating welcoming, inclusive educational environments. Since mid-January, Rhode Island high school junior Jessica Ahlquist, an outspoken atheist, has faced severe backlash
for arguing against the unconstitutional display of a School Prayer in her school’s gymnasium. Ever since a federal judge sided with Ahlquist and ruled that her school must remove the prayer, Ahlquist reports experiencing harassment and even death threats, mostly through social media. Ahlquist says that she has no problem with individual expressions of faith. Rather, she objects to the endorsement of a particular religious position by a public school, and to the exclusionary feeling it creates for students like Ahlquist.
Ahlquist is targeted for expressing her opinions and defending her right to religious freedom, a right protected from state infringement by the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. By promoting religion, Ahlquist’s school violates not just the 14th amendment but also the establishment clause of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”). The school also creates an environment unwelcoming to anyone who differs from the religious norm it appears to endorse. In a diverse society, a school should promote respect for all different identities, including religious, and provide a safe space for students to express these identities.
These are the very goals of Respect for All Week: to prevent bullying, celebrate diversity and teach about the importance of respect. And in order to accomplish all of these goals, we must learn to understand and appreciate the unique backgrounds of the many individuals who make up our diverse communities. Tanenbaum supports this vision and wishes all teachers and students, in New York City and beyond, a successful and enlightening Respect for All Week 2012.
Project Assistant, Education