Paula Johnson, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2018

Paula JohnsonMany youths face bullying and harassment in school because of their race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexual orientation or disability. One area that tends to get less attention is religion equity, except perhaps when a dramatic incident catches the public’s eye. Reports indicate a rise in the number of Muslim and Sikh students expressing concern for their well-being and that of their families stemming from a perceived association between their religious heritage and terrorism (Guo, 2011; Rogers et al., 2017). Students from other religious groups across the country also experience bullying, which affects both their social and emotional well-being.

This article focuses on religious diversity as a protected civil right, how schools can foster more inclusive learning environments, and recommendations for educators.

Religious Diversity as a Civil Rights Issue

Very little research has investigated bullying based on religious differences. In these types of bullying situations, the act may have more to do with negative attitudes and stereotypes about how someone expresses their beliefs and have less to do beliefs themselves. Nevertheless, when bullying based on religion occurs in a severe, pervasive or persistent manner, it can be considered harassment under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act (AERA, 2013). When schools do not adequately address harassment, they may be in violation of civil rights laws, sometimes requiring intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

Many times, students report being targeted because of visible symbols they wear in accordance with their religious beliefs. For example, Jewish boys wearing yarmulkes and Sikh males who wear patka or dastaar (head covering), experience bullying based on their attire. There also have been several incidents involving young Muslim girls wearing traditional hijab (head scarves). These items are sometimes forcefully removed by other students as a means of bullying and intimidation.

In fact, Muslim children are much more likely than those of other faiths to have experienced bullying at school because of their religion (see graphs on Page 2). And surprisingly, while most Muslim bullying is by students, one in four incidents involves a teacher (Mogahed & Chouhoud, 2017).

Schools must be vigilant about these bullying behaviors. It is important that educators be aware of the legal context and be clear about their policies and procedures for investigating and responding to bias incidents. Schools and communities that model respect for diversity help protect students against bullying behaviors.

The IDRA EAC-South is the equity assistance center funded by the U.S. Department of Education to provide capacity-building technical assistance to school districts in Washington, D.C., and 11 states in the U.S. South. One of the four areas of students’ civil rights that we focus on is religion equity to help schools build inclusive school environments, reduce biases, and increase positive relationships among all members of the school and community

Fostering Safe and Inclusive School Environments

Current research shows that teachers are more likely to intervene in bias incidents related to race, religion and disability than other forms of bias (sexual orientation, gender presentation, and body size) (AERA, 2013). Safe and supportive school climates are critical to preventing bullying.

Student safety begins in the classroom but extends to every space on campus. Students should feel protected on the bus, in the rest room, on the playground and in the library. It is everyone’s responsibility to work together to create a learning environment where bullying is not an acceptable behavior.

The Welcoming School website (, a project of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, offers parents and educators resources for creating safe and welcoming schools for all children and families. Materials include professional development recommendations and strategies that can be used immediately with staff to foster inclusive learning environments.

Strategies for Embracing Diversity

Dr. Mark Chancey, professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University states, “If we as a nation want to understand how to relate to the rest of the globe, then we need to have a richer and deeper understanding of different cultures – including various religions.” In general, schools can:

  • Establish a school culture of inclusion and respect for diversity that welcomes all students. The Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports Technical Assistance Center ( can help.
  • Monitor locations in and around the building that may be bullying “hot spots.” Areas that have little or no adult monitoring or supervision (such as bathrooms, playgrounds and the cafeteria) may place students at higher risk of bias incidents.
  • Make it the business of the entire school staff to be on the lookout for bullying. The climate of the school is set by the adults. This includes teachers, paraprofessional staff, parent volunteers, bus drivers, school librarians and nurses, cafeteria staff, and others. The school can send a strong message of inclusion and respect for diversity when students are hearing it from the many different adults they see and speak to every day.

We must work to prepare teachers to help students appreciate, respect, understand and learn from students of other cultures. The next generation of citizens will be equipped to promote greater tolerance in schools at all levels, in the workplace, and in the global community (Gardner, Soules, & Valk, 2017).

Contact the IDRA EAC-South or your regional equity assistance center if your school or district need technical assistance.

Online Resources Related to Religion and Bullying

Know Your Rights about Religious Expression at School

Addressing Bullying Based on Diversity, Race and Religion

Instructional Resources for Teaching about Religion


American Educational Research Association. (2013). Prevention of Bullying in Schools, Colleges, and Universities: Research Report and Recommendations (Washington, D.C.: AERA).

Gardner, R.S., Soules, K., & Valk, J. (2017). “The Urgent Need for Teacher Preparation in Religious and Secular Worldview Education,” Religious Education, 112(3), 242-254.

Guo, Y. (2011). “Perspectives of Immigrant Muslim Parents Advocating for Religious Diversity in Canadian Schools,” Multicultural Education, Vol 18, no 2, 55-60.

Mogahed, D., & Chouhoud, Y. (2017). American Muslim Poll 2017: Muslims at the Crossroads (Dearborn, Mich.: Institute for Social Policy and Understanding).

Rogers, J., Franke, M., Yun, J.E., Ishimoto, M., Diera, C., Geller, R., Berryman, A., & Brenes, T. (2017). Teaching and Learning in the Age of Trump: Increasing Stress and Hostility in America’s High Schools (Los Angeles, Calif.: UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access).

Teaching Tolerance Staff. (Summer 2017). “A Matter of Life and Death – Two Scholars Make the Case for Teaching Religious Literacy,” Teaching Tolerance, Issue 56. (2018). Diversity, Race & Religion, web page (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

Paula Johnson, Ph.D., is an IDRA education associate and National Director of Policy and is associate director of the IDRA EAC-South. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at

[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2018 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. 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.]