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Islamophobia incidents are rising in Massachusetts public schools, report finds

Muslim community members attended a group meeting in Malden last year to bring together local Muslims and other religious groups for dialogue with administrators of the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, which disciplined a student for wearing a hijab, which was treated as a violation of the school's dress code.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations is reporting a 72 percent jump in requests for its help from parents and students experiencing an Islamophobia incident in public schools.

Overall, the civil rights group received fewer requests for legal assistance in 2022, consistent with national trends reported by its Washington, D.C., office. But school-related incidents surged, replacing the workplace as the top site for complaints of harassment, discrimination, and abuse, CAIR’s annual report found.

And after five years of a steady decline in calls about hate crimes and harassment, 2022 broke the trend, seeing a 33 percent jump in such complaints.


Last year marked the first time school-related incidents, such as discrimination over religious head coverings and stereotypes of being violent and being perceived as terrorists, topped the list for cases of discrimination against Muslims, said Barbara Dougan, legal director of CAIR Massachusetts.

“Can you imagine being a child going to school — which you need to do — and not knowing what you’re going to face?” she said. “We’re realizing there are really long-term, serious consequences for going to school and not feeling safe, whether it’s at the hands of your classmate because officials don’t take matters seriously, or because school officials themselves are the problem.”

In a e-mail to the Globe, CAIR stated the number of school-related complaints the organization received increased to 20 in 2022 from 11 in 2021. Nationally, the number of complaints jumped to 289 in 2022 from 177 in 2021.

The latest numbers follow a 2021 CAIR Massachusetts survey where 61 percent of Muslim students reported they had been made fun of, verbally insulted, or abused for being Muslim.

A former student who is now in close contact with CAIR told the Globe in an interview that he was often the target of offensive racial and religious remarks in high school, frequently called a terrorist after moving to a new school district when classmates learned he was Muslim and of Pakistani descent.


The 25-year-old, who did not want to be identified out of concern for his safety as he still lives in the same town where he attended high school, said teachers he attempted to confide in would either brush off these incidents or contribute to the harassment by making statements about Muslims “being too radical” and violent.

“When I was a student, I didn’t seek any civil rights counsel from organizations like CAIR,” he said, though he said his family and other families of color would report such incidents to school staff. “But the school was never willing to do anything about it.”

After a group of students attempted to provoke him into a fight, he said he filed a police report to begin documenting his experiences of Islamophobia.

“I would be issued death threats, empty death threats,” he said. “They got to the point where they threatened to rape my sister and tie her down to a table and just do horrific things to her.”

CAIR’s 2022 report also includes complaints about students being unfairly disciplined and perceived as potential terrorists compared to non-Muslim classmates.

“If a child is acting out in a way where there’s a potential for violence, of course that needs to be taken seriously,” said Dougan. “But what we’re seeing is overreactions, and is it because Muslim children are unfairly labeled as more likely to engage in some sort of juvenile-level terrorist act?”


The report also cites how Muslim girls report that their schools failed to protect them from bullies targeting them and their head covering, noting one case where an eighth-grader was issued a dress code violation for wearing a hijab on her first day of school.

As the Globe previously reported, the Muslim family said their eighth-grader came home in tears after receiving the infraction and noted that hijab was misspelled as “jihab” on the School Uniform Compliance Form.

The incident sparked an outcry in the local community, with many accusing the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School of mishandling the situation and being insensitive of religious attire.

According to CAIR’s bullying report of Massachusetts Muslim Youth from 2021, 17 percent of students reported having their hijab tugged, pulled on, or other forms of offensive touching.

Dougan also noted the new spike in hate crime and harassment numbers from the “last five or six years.”

Most cases of anti-Muslim harassment and assault start out as random encounters, she said, occurring at places most wouldn’t expect to deal with hate, such as grocery stores or gas stations.

One such incident included in the group’s report was that of a Melrose city councilor who was called a terrorist by a woman at a gas station. When the councilor’s husband confronted the woman, she allegedly shoved him so she could take a photo of their car.


One CAIR client, a father who filed a complaint after experiencing anti-Muslim harassment, wrote: “I am writing this complaint with friend of mine who help me with the English yet the racist and ill treatment of my family and I is a subject that can be understood by any language.”

Ashley Soebroto can be reached at ashley.soebroto@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ashsoebroto.