Invest in Diversity Education Now – Or You May Pay Later

Invest in Diversity Education Now – Or You May Pay Later
By: Marisa Fasciano

Overview: School districts need to invest in thoughtful strategies for addressing students’ religious differences before they create an expensive legal problem.

As reported in The New York Times, a judge recently approved a $4.48 million settlement agreement between New York’s Pine Bush School District and five Jewish students who were victims of horrific and prolonged anti-Semitic bullying by schoolmates. While the district defended itself in the lawsuit and was not required by the settlement to admit fault, it’s clear that its efforts to address the bullying of the plaintiffs (and likely others) did not protect them from scarring emotional damage. This case boldly underscores the importance of implementing a comprehensive and proactive strategy for addressing religious diversity before a crisis occurs, a crisis that could substantially drain resources and damage reputations.

It’s not the first time that legal action has been taken against a school district for failing to properly respond to religious harassment, and trends indicate that it’s probably not the last.  In 2013, the United States Department of Justice reached a settlement agreement with Georgia’s DeKalb County School District following their investigation into a complaint brought by The Sikh Coalition. The complaint alleged that a middle school student suffered repeated verbal and physical abuse by schoolmates because of his Sikh faith.  He was called “Aladdin” and “terrorist” because of his turban and told to “go back to his country.”

Student attitudes like these shouldn’t come as a surprise given the prejudice and hate that still exists in society at large. Examples abound, such as when members of The Loyal White Knights, a North Carolina-based KKK faction, rallied at the South Carolina statehouse in July to protest the removal of the Confederate flag. It’s important to keep in mind that schools don’t exist in a vacuum. Was it a coincidence or not that, in the mid-1970s, Pine Bush was home to a KKK chapter president and that his wife, also in the KKK, was on the school board during that time?

On the other hand, a school’s lack of control over community attitudes isn’t a valid excuse for indifference or halfhearted responses to bullying. In November 2013, Tanenbaum CEO Joyce Dubensky wrote a letter to the Times editor in response to earlier reports of the anti-Semitism in Pine Bush.  She argued that  “While educators can’t fix religious prejudice across society all alone, they can assume responsibility within their sphere of influence.” We applaud efforts like the New York City Department of Education’s Respect for All initiative, which expanded in response to attacks against Sikh students in Queens schools.

From district policy, to school-wide programs, to classroom curricula, respect for religious differences can and should be promoted at all levels. If your school is interested in inclusive and bully-free learning environments, why wait until religious prejudice becomes a problem that can’t be ignored? Check out Tanenbaum’s K-12 religious diversity curricula and educator training programs, and contact us at education[at]tanenbaum.org for more info on how to interrupt the machinery of hate.