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Utah group pushing for more specific policy on religious clothing in public schools

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) – Should public schools in Utah adopt more specific language in their policy regarding students wearing religious clothing? The Refugee Justice League says ‘yes’ after several Muslim students were bullied and harassed for wearing a headscarf or hijab.

Maram Al-Shammari, a 6th grade student at Millcreek Elementary School, is one of those students. She told ABC 4 News her family are refugees from Iraq and they’re thankful for the freedoms they can enjoy here in the United States. But in school, she hasn’t always felt welcomed.

“I’ve gotten called ‘toilet paper head’ when I wore white,” said Al-Shammari. “I used to wear it because I love that color, but now I barely do.”

One of the worse incidents dates back to two years ago, when one of her classmates pulled off her hijab during recess.

“I felt disrespected. I felt like my culture was disrespected,” said Al-Shammari. “When I went to my 4th grade teacher, she took the side of the bully, not me. The principal also took the side of the bully.”

That’s when the James McConkie, co-founder of the Refugee Justice League (RJL), said they stepped in and were able to successfully resolve the issue.

“Sometimes, what happens with refugees is they’re afraid to speak out,” said McConkie. “Because they come from countries where fear reigns. The government and lawyers are their adversaries, not their advocates.”

“It had a dramatic impact on her that the school and the teacher didn’t recognize it at first. She expressed how frightening that was,” said McKell Withers, member of the RJL advisory board.

RJL advisory board members said the FBI reported hate crimes spiked by 17 percent in 2017 for the third straight year, which are evident of an increasing divisive and hateful climate in the country.

In documents provided to ABC 4 News, RJL said, “adults participating in hate speech embolden their children in the public school system to harass and bully fellow students.”

Withers, who is a retired superintendent for the Salt Lake City school district, spearheaded an effort, called the ‘Religious Clothing Initiative.’

He met with the State Board of Education to strengthen bullying regulations and is now approaching all school districts (aside from Davis School District whom McConkie said already has specific language in their policies regarding religious clothing) about adding the following language in their policy to “further educate and protect students”:

  • “Student dress is a form of individual expression and any regulation of religious apparel must be done in the least restrictive manner possible to maintain a safe, inclusive, and welcoming school environment. School officials should make appropriate exemptions to dress codes and reasonably accommodate students who wear hairstyles, clothing, head wear, jewelry, cosmetics, or other apparel as a personal expression of sincerely held religious beliefs.”
  • “Religious attire that should be appropriately accommodated in school includes, but is not limited to: hairstyles, yarmulkes, hijabs, turbans, religious jewelry, appropriate religious messages on clothing, badges, and/or insignias, and ceremonial attire.”
  • “School officials should also appropriately accommodate student requests to not wear certain gym clothes and/or uniforms that students regard, on a religious basis, as immodest.”

Withers said RJL will offer to have attorneys speak at various schools to students, teachers, and parents about the ‘need to respect each other’s closely held religious beliefs.’

“Sometimes, students wear interesting things to school to garner attention or something that’s their favorite,” said Withers. “But as a teacher or administrator, if you don’t know the difference between something that is just an expression versus a religious expression, you might error on the adult side of not respecting that.”

Officials with Granite School District, where approximately 75 percent of refugee students live and attend school, said they usually shy away from this kind of specific language for a reason.

“The rationale is that when you start making lists, you’re invariably going to leave someone off that list and we prefer a more inclusive, broader approach that ensures protection for every student in Granite School District,” said Ben Horsley, spokesperson with Granite School District.

Horsley said there is already language in place to protect students, referring to these sections in their district policy:

  • “‘Harassment’ refers to unwelcome conduct targeted at an individual, or group of individuals, that is derisive, demeaning, or disparaging in nature and is based in whole or in part on the individual’s age, race, color, sex, pregnancy, religion, national origin, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity, or because an individual conforms or fails to conform with a real or perceived stereotype.”
  • “The District prohibits discrimination, harassment (including sexual harassment), and retaliation on all district property, at all school-related or sponsored events or activities, during all educational programing, in all aspects of employment with the District, and by all District students and employees. Any student who engages in discrimination, harassment, or retaliation may be subject to discipline up to and including suspension, alternative placement, or expulsion.”
  • “Prohibited discrimination and harassment can generally be classified as conduct intended to exclude, harm, demean, or intimidate an individual or group of individuals based on one or more identification factors. Discriminating or harassing conduct targeted at an individual or group of individuals may include, but is not limited to: 
    • a. aggressive or violent physical conduct or threats of the same; 
    • b. excluding an individual(s) participation in or access to any facilities, programming, activities, employment, or other benefits offered by the District; 
    • c. use of epithets, slurs, negative stereotypes, name calling, verbal abuse, and derogatory comments; 
    • d. creating graffiti, drawings, or other symbolic communication with threatening messages, degrading descriptions, or stereotypical caricatures; and 
    • e. unwelcome communication, jokes, stories, pictures, gestures, or displays of offensive or degrading material.

As the initiative is fairly new and unique to the state, Withers said they will wait to see what the response is from other districts are and then discuss with the advisory board their next plan of action.

Despite what school districts decide to do with RJL’s recommendation, Al-Shammari said she’s just happy to see more awareness and dialogue about religious clothing.

“I want to show that I’m Muslim and I love my religion. The word, ‘Islam’ means peace,” said Al-Shammari. “I don’t want to see other girls or boys’ religion to be made fun of or laughed at.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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