Lessons on Sept. 11 attacks trigger bullying of Muslim students

School lessons on the 9/11 attacks often trigger some of the worst bullying Muslim students endure.

Classmates give uneasy side-eyes, make crude jokes and call them “terrorists.” Teachers don’t always step in and stop it.

“Everyone in the room is looking at you with a hyper-focus on you and your presence,” said American University education professor Amaarah DeCuir, whose work aims to expand cultural awareness in the classroom.

According to a 2020 survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding — a Washington-based think tank that studies the “challenges and opportunities” of Muslim Americans, according to its website — American parents with children who identify as Muslim and attend school between kindergarten and grade 12 have reported classroom harassment at twice the rate of the general public.

DeCuir, who has been interviewing Muslim teenagers about their experiences in school for the past two years, says many experience pervasive bullying year-round.

But the worst of the worst, they’ve told her, happens during school lessons about 9/11. As the nation prepares to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the deadliest foreign assault on American soil, DeCuir has been sharing her research with educators to raise awareness as teachers tackle the difficult subject with their students.

Generally, curriculum pacing guides don’t get to 9/11 until the end of the school year. But the significance of this anniversary has dominated American discourse, and teachers likely will tackle the subject this month. Students are paying attention to the national conversation about the anniversary and may bring it up in class themselves even if it’s not part of a planned lesson, DeCuir said.

“Virginia educators are going to need to provide support for young people who are trying to make sense of this day,” she said.

DeCuir advises teachers to tell “the human stories of heroism and service” from that day — and not just focus on the destruction and loss of life.

Just being aware of the increased harassment Muslim students face during lessons like this can help, she said. Teachers are more alert and can intervene faster.

She also tells teachers not to assume students don’t hold strong emotions about the day just because they weren’t alive on 9/11. Muslim and non-Muslim students alike have grown up in its shadow, she said.

DeCuir shared her advice with Virginia teachers in a webinar last month and has assembled resources to help adults teach children about the anniversary. That information is available at www.contemporaryislam.org/9-11-teaching.

The webinar drew criticism from conservative-leaning parent organizations, one of which described it as an effort to “hijack the history of the 9/11 narrative.

The backlash didn’t surprise her, she said, as it’s a common response to scholars who advocate for equity and anti-racist approaches in education. The criticism of DeCuir’s webinar follows months of outcry against efforts to make schools more inclusive places, which some have incorrectly labeled as “critical race theory.”

DeCuir said teachers, by contrast, have expressed gratitude for her advice.

Sara Gregory, 757-469-7484, sara.gregory@pilotonline.com.