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C CAIR-FL In The News

Muslim schools share concerns about security

By Livi Stanford, For redefinED, On 22 May 2017, Read Original
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Two parents were trying to relocate to Orlando, inquiring about educational opportunities for their children at Ibn Seena Academy, an Islamic school serving students in Pre-K through eighth grade.

Rehannah Hemmali, the principal, said they told her their children did not feel accepted in public schools in Port Charlotte, a Southwest Florida city 159 miles away.

Hemmali said the students felt isolated. Other students ridiculed their dress and their food.

“They are concerned with raising their children in an environment that they do not always feel welcome,” said Hemmali in a phone interview. “They want to make a change for their child.”

Educators say Islamic schools provide a safe place for students who face bullying and hate crimes. They also push back against criticism that students “live in a bubble” at the schools. On the contrary, they argue, the schools emphasize strong academics and prepare students to succeed in society with an understanding of all faiths and cultures.

Principals, parents and educational experts believe Muslim schools help children feel safer and freer from bullying. They expressed concerns about those schools becoming the targets of violence and hate crimes because of the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate crimes.

The FBI’s most recent hate crime report showed 22.2 percent were anti-Islamic, up from 12.8 percent in 2012. Further, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported the number of anti-Muslim groups is growing, from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016.

In a new report, The Council on American-Islamic Relations stated in 2016, there were “209 incidents of anti-Muslim bias, including harassment, intimidation, and violence targeting students.” According to a CAIR 2015 report, “55 percent of Muslim students aged (11 to 18) reported being subject to some form of bullying because of their faith.”

“Parents are always on edge,” said Jameer Abass, principal of the Muslim Academy of Greater Orlando, which serves 261 students from Pre-K to eighth grade. “We spend a lot of money on surveillance cameras. I hired an armed security guard to monitor all of our gates.”

Hemmali agreed.

“We are here to educate children,” she said. “It can’t be done unless it is done in a safe manner. When someone threatens the safety of our children it impacts our ability to teach them.”

Hemmali said she keeps updating security measures on the school’s property, which serves 211 students.

“If we have school events where many parents come, we pay for off-duty police,” she said. “We made sure we installed more video cameras on the property. We are going around pushing on doors to make sure they are not left slightly ajar by someone walking out. We are adding precautions for parents who come into the building. They (must) be escorted. We are not taking any chances.”

No threats have been reported at either school. But that does not calm nerves.

“Every time I see an attack on a brother and sister in the community I get concerned,” Hemmali said, referring to the threats on Jewish community centers. “If they do it to anyone, any other school is vulnerable.”

Increasing security threats

Since the beginning of the year, there have been bomb threats at 167 Jewish community centers in 38 states. Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, filed HB 3653 to fund added security measures at Jewish day schools. The state budget, which has not been signed yet by Gov. Rick Scott, allocates $654,491 to fund security at Jewish day schools.

New York state allocated “a record-breaking $40 million in security funds in the FY 2018 budget – the largest security allocation anywhere in the country” for nonpublic schools, according to the Orthodox Union.

Other states including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and California have added programs, allocated funds or introduced legislation to provide funding for security at faith-based private schools.

Hemmali said the animosity some Muslim students feel in public schools has been occurring since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We have parents tell us that people will make fun of” their children, she said. “They call them terrorists and people will pull at their hijabs, getting into fights and feeling unsafe. You don’t know when the next punch will come around the corner.”

Thania Diaz Clevenger, civil rights director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said anecdotally there have been more cases of bullying of Muslim students in public schools in the last year.

“We are seeing kids that have been bullied, whether they have a Muslim name or wear the hijab,” she said.

Clevenger said CAIR expects to release a report at the end of the summer documenting the number of cases of bullying of Muslims and hate crimes against them.

Academics with a broad focus on different cultures 

Souheil Zekri, an education consultant and former principal at the American Youth Academy in Tampa, said a number of students left the public school system because of bullying.

“There is a very high comfort level with the (Islamic school) environment and the majority of the parents are really coming into the Islamic school because of the environment,” he said.

Muslim schools provide the student the ability to “learn about their religion and have the opportunity to think critically about how to identify as a Muslim within the society,” Zekri said.

“We tried to push the academics very high,” he added, stating the school has been successful.

A good education is critical for all students, Zekri added.

“We know where terrorism comes from: it comes from darkness, the inability to learn,” he said. “They did not have a chance to have a good education.”

While parents often express interest in enrolling their children in Islamic schools, Clevenger said the cost of a private school is not attainable for every family

Principals at Islamic schools say students are involved in activities with other students from different religions and are taught the importance of integration in society.

“We are in a society that is open to dialogue,” Zekri said. “At least fundamentally there is freedom of religion and freedom of speech. That is what we try to seize in Islamic school. It is not in anyone’s interest to keep their kids in a bubble and protect them. Ultimately in the United States you are part of a society. You have to be in a society working with any people from any religion, any creed or any walks of life. It is not just an option or possibility. It is a requirement for us to be successful educators. If we are good Muslims, we are going to be good citizens that identify being Muslim with being American. In a void of a good educational environment, the divisiveness becomes prevalent.”

Hemmali said it is essential to prepare students for integration wherever they go and “assimilation when they leave our doors.”

The school teaches Next Generation Science Standards, which are K-12 science content standards, as well as Islamic studies. Approximately 65 to 75 percent of students end up attending a Pre-IB school, which allows students to pursue both a high school and associate’s degree by the time they graduate high school.

The Muslim Academy of Greater Orlando bases its curriculum on the Florida State Standards and includes 45 minutes of Quran studies a day. According to the latest evaluation of Florida tax credit scholarships, low-income students who attended the school with the help of the school choice program made learning gains that were significantly larger than their national peers. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program.)

Abass said the school also emphasizes integration with the rest of American society.

“For me, what I am trying to teach the kids is you are part of a larger society,” he said. “You are American. We do fundraising for the Leukemia society and try to be as much as possible part of the community. We have kids involved in Jewish Boy Scouts.”

It all comes down to people understanding each other, Hemmali said.

“As humankind, we have not given each other the time to get to know each other and each other’s stories,” she said.

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