• by Sofía Bahena, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • February 2017 •

School-age children in the United States are growing up in an environment that is increasingly hostile toward the Muslim community. Analyzing the most recent FBI data available, the Pew Research Center (2016) finds that hate crimes against Muslims in 2015 had risen to similar levels as those committed shortly after 9/11, which was a 67 percent increase in incidents from the previous year. Although 2016 numbers from the FBI will not be available until late this year, it is unlikely that this number will have decreased.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (2016) has been gathering unofficial counts of hateful harassment and intimidation. In the five days after the 2016 election, it documented more than 40 anti-Muslim incidents. Furthermore, of the total 437 total incidents collected, 99 (23 percent) occurred in a K-12 setting; this was the most frequently-cited location for harassment incidents.

Most recently, an executive order forbidding citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Libya and Yemen) from entering the United States – though since enjoined by the courts on constitutional grounds – has further stigmatized the Muslim community as a “threat to national security” (NPR, 2017).

Challenges Facing American Muslim Students

Ahmed, et al., (2015) detail the ways in which particular subgroups of American Muslim youth face challenges, specifically young Muslim women, African American Muslim youth, and refugee Muslim youth. For example, young Muslim women have to balance the sometimes conflicting messages where they are “encouraged to be outspoken about their rights within mainstream society but not push the status quo within their religious and cultural communities” (p. 9).

African American Muslim youth experience the same detrimental effects of institutional racism (e.g., profiling, poverty, and discrimination) as Black youth more generally. “African American Muslim youth,” Ahmed, et al., (2015) explain, “experience stigmatization due to both religious and racial identification on multiple levels. Ignoring or failing to integrate awareness of racial realities can result in overlooking the needs and realities of African American Muslim youth” (p. 12).

Lastly, refugee Muslim youth may feel marginalized, in part, due to segregation and other students’ xenophobic beliefs. Muslim youth are at an intersection of several potential identities, including race, immigrant or refugee status, and gender. School leaders should thus consider an intersectional approach to their bullying prevention efforts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2016) define bullying as “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youth who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.”

However, Brion-Meisels & Garnett (2015) provide an alternative framework and introduce the concept of relational youth violence: “behaviors (physical, relational, sexual, verbal, or psychological) and policies (formal and informal) that are intentionally or unintentionally harmful to a young personal or group of young people, based on real or perceived power imbalances that reflect larger social structures of equity and power.”

Strategies for Schools

By synthesizing the definitions of “bullying,” “harassment,” and “discrimination,” the authors argue that educators and practitioners can take into account systemic factors resulting in youth violence. Traditional models of bullying require educators to document who was involved in the harmful incident and whether it was reported or not, mostly in order to identify key disciplinary consequences.

In contrast, within the framework of relational youth violence, educators are asked to question the role that individual-, school- and community-level factors played in the incident. What this means for practice, especially for schools educating Muslim youth, is that solutions for addressing and preventing bullying could be focused more on schoolwide interventions that are embedded in the curriculum or in local policies and practices, rather than addressing incidents as if they were independent, unrelated events.

Some examples of preventative strategies include incorporating of curriculum that teaches understanding and acceptance and helps build relationships across difference, using restorative justice practices, and having an explicit conversation about power and inequity.

Furthermore, Miriam Durrani, an expert on Islamophobia and Muslim youth, offers useful strategies (Shafer, 2016) for educators and school leaders, such as designing anti-bullying practices that explicitly state that harassment based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender or immigration status is not acceptable, rather than a broad anti-bullying policy. It is also important to teach students to be critical consumers of media as such bullying is likely tied to broader Islamophobic rhetoric and for educators to reflect on their own implicit biases.

Given the pervasive anti-Muslim rhetoric surging across the country, an effective way of understanding and addressing bullying against Muslim youth is through a broader, systemic lens. As Brion-Meisels & Garnett emphasize, “If we do not carefully consider the multiple impacts of social position factors, we risk interventions that fail to address some of the underlying causes of relational youth violence” (p. 245).

As educators face the challenge of addressing bullying against Muslim students in the country’s schools, it is critical they have the resources and strategies necessary to do so. The U.S. Department of Education funds four equity assistance centers (EACs), under Title IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, across the nation precisely to support schools and school districts in promoting equal educational opportunities along the lines of race, gender, national origin, and religion, including bullying and harassment.

The IDRA EAC-South provides technical assistance to communities in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. For technical assistance, contact eacsouth@idra.org or 210-444-1710.


Ahmed, S., & S. Patel, H. Hashem. (2015). State of American Muslim Youth: Research & Recommendations (Hilliard, Ohio: The Family & Youth Institute, and Institute for Social Policy and Understanding).

Brion-Meisels, G., & B. Garnett. (2015). “Toward an Integrated Theory of Relational Youth Violence: Bridging a Gap among the Theory, Research, and Practice of Bullying Prevention,” Contemporary School Psychology, 20(3), pp. 240-253.

Centers for Disease and Control. (2016). Youth Bullying: What Does Research Say?, web page.

National Public Radio. (January 31, 2017). “Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration, Annotated,” National Public Radio.

Pew Research Center. (November 21, 2016). “Anti-Muslim assaults reach 9/11-era levels, FBI data show,” Fact Tank.

Shafer, L. (November 23, 2016). “Dismantling Islamophobia: Anti-Muslim Bullying is Different from Other Types of Harassment. Here’s How Schools Can Work Against it,” Useable Knowledge. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/16/11/dismantling-islamophobia

Southern Poverty Law Center. (November 15, 2017). “Update: More Than 400 Incidents of Hateful Harassment and Intimidation Since the Election,” SPLC Hate Watch.


Sofía Bahena, Ed.D., is an IDRA senior education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at sofia.bahena@idra.org.

[©2017, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2017 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please email contact@idra.org. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]