Muslim parents and Guilford schools join forces against bullying

by Jordan Green

Karen Mujali sat at a table apart from her three children, who crowded into a booth at Nazareth Bread Co. Bakery and Restaurant with the children of the restaurant and bakery’s owner on a recent Friday night. One of the older girls had a laptop open and others worked on homework.

The social lives of Mujali and other members of Islamic Center of the Triad, a Greensboro mosque, revolve around their children. The mosque’s youth committee came first, and then the parents established the Muslim Parent-Teacher Association about two years ago to advocate for their children and work with Guilford County Schools to prevent bullying.

“I apologize for being late,” said Ahmad Abdelmajid, an engineer. “That’s what happens when you have five boys.”

Six-year-old Jihad, Mujali’s youngest child, tugged at Abdelmajid’s arms, asking after his sons. Abdelmajid explained that his boys had chores to complete before they could go to the overnight lock-in. Jihad was eager to get to the lock-in also.

The Muslim parents sprung into action when some of their children reported to them that another Muslim child was targeted by bullies who joked that when he came into the room they heard a ticking noise, basically inferring that he was a terrorist. Mujali said the children from Islamic Center of the Triad feel they need to advocate for others who might not report bullying out of fear because their parents don’t speak good English or their mothers wear head coverings.

“Since part of our policy and goal is to not be tolerant of bullying of any kind in any of our schools, when we found out that the Muslim community said they had students who were being bullied we immediately responded,” said Monica Walker, the district’s diversity officer. “One of our first revelations was that the students had not been reporting the bullying.”

The Muslim PTA met with Walker and other members of the Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination Committee, along with principals from several schools at Mendenhall Middle School in Greensboro. Mendenhall Middle was chosen because it was one of the schools the parents had identified as having a problem with bullying.

“One of the wonderful things in terms of helping the students build confidence was that the students actually got to speak,” said Shirley Stipe-Zindle, student services administrator for the district. “There were representatives of the schools where they said they had problems. The people from the school spoke passionately about how they wanted the children to come forward and how there was a safe person that the children could go to.”

Nora Shoptaw, a spokeswoman for the district, said Guilford County Schools does not keep data on students based on religious preference, but Badi Ali, the spiritual leader at Islamic Center of the Triad, said the number of Muslim students in county schools is on the rise.

“Educators have to start paying attention to Muslim students’ needs,” he said.

In many instances the Muslim parents praised the school system’s response to anti- Islamic behavior and bullying. Abdelmajid said his eldest son endured his classmates at Johnson Street Global Studies K-8 school in High Point poking fun when the teacher said Muslims worship a God called Allah. The teacher immediately put a stop to the ridicule, but some of the children continued to jest behind her back.

The parents have broken the fast of Ramadan with principals at Johnson Global Studies. And the association is planning to host a Middle Eastern cultural evening to help educate and sensitive non-Muslim parents and students.

Ali said Superintendent Mo Green responded positively to a letter announcing the Muslim PTA’s formation and outlining a series of needs. As a result of the parents’ advocacy, the school district has coded lunch menus to indicate whether pork, which is forbidden in the Muslim diet, is in any of the food.

The school have also accommodated Ali’s request that Muslim students have the option of less strenuous physical education activities during the Ramadan fast and Muslim girls be allowed to wear modest clothing, including long-sleeved shirts, in the gym. And while the district administration has expressed openness to the idea, the PTA’s demand that Arabic be offered as a language elective has yet to be realized.

“Before the holidays I send my sons with a sheet explaining that my sons will not be in school and why,” Abdelmajid said. “One of my sons’ teacher actually came up to me later and thanked me because now she knows what to expect with other Muslim students.”