Half of Asian American Teens Bullied in NYC Schools, New Report Finds

September 23, 2013

Sikh American student Pawan Singh (center) reacts at a Nirbhau Nirvair Workshop. Image courtesy of the Junior Sikh Coalition.

Modified from original post at Racialicious

by Guest Contributor Sukjong Hong

Originally published at New America Media

No one promises junior high school will be easy. But for
Pawanpreet Singh, a tall and mild-mannered Sikh American teenager, junior high
was overshadowed with the memories of classmates calling him “Osama” and
“terrorist” and touching his turban. “I
would hear at least one comment per day… I felt like I was less than
everyone else, and some other species. It took a toll on my self esteem and
academics,” he said.  Now,
as a high school student advocate, he hears from other students around the city
who face the same insults and get no help from the school staff they call upon.
At a September 5th press conference in lower Manhattan, Singh
recalled a 13-year-old student who reported to his teacher that his classmate
had called him a “raghead.” According to the student, the teacher had replied,
“What’s the problem? That’s what you are.”

It has been five years since New York City’s Department of Education
established a regulation to address bias-based bullying regulation in schools, Chancellor’s
Regulation A-832.
The regulation was the result of years of advocacy by
community and legal groups in the aftermath of three high-profile incidents of
harassment against Sikh American students. On paper, the regulation is
comprehensive, with measures for defining, reporting, addressing, and
preventing bias-based harassment in schools. But a survey conducted by a
coalition of community and legal groups, including the Asian American Legal
Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), the Sikh Coalition, the Coalition for
Asian American Children and Families (CACF) and CAAAV: Organizing Asian
Communities, revealed that bias-based bullying is still a far too common
experience for Asian American students.

Based on the responses of 163 students in after school programs, youth
leadership meetings and houses of worship across the city, the report by AALDEF and the Sikh Coalition, One
Step Forward, Half A Step Back
, finds that half of the students surveyed
had experienced bias-based harassment at school. What’s even more unacceptable,
according to Amardeep Singh, Program Director of the Sikh Coalition, is that more
than 25% of Sikh students experienced physical violence based on their

Many schools have yet to fully enforce the accountability measures of the Chancellor’s
regulation.  Just 66% of students
responded that their school had designated a staff person to receive reports of
biased-based harassment. Only 16% of the students who reported being bullied
received a written report with the results of a school investigation, and less
than half of the students’ parents were notified of the bullying incident.

The harassment extends beyond Sikh American students to other Asian American
groups as well. “A group of people called my friends and me ‘chinks’ and
dropped garbage to show that we were lower class,” one Asian American student
was quoted in the report. For Tania Hussain, a 14-year old Bengali American
student, she vividly remembered when a classmate said to her and a Muslim
classmate, “Oh, you’re a terrorist. Are you going to bomb America? Are you
allies with Osama bin Laden?” It was the first time she had been targeted, but
it opened her eyes to the harassment that other students experienced on a
regular basis. From these interviews and other reports, it appears that Asian American
students of South Asian heritage frequently experienced Islamophobic harassment
from fellow students, a far-reaching legacy of the racial and religious
backlash that accompanied the US War on Terror.

Beyond anti-Muslim sentiments, the bullying of Asian American students also
included subtle forms of non-physical aggression, such as insults related to
cultural characteristics, academic performance, and the ability to speak
English. Students like Allyson Dia were glad that she could talk about this in
the youth leadership group at CACF. “I just thought it was something only I
went through, but joining this program really opened my eyes to all the
microaggressions that I faced,” she said. She had transferred schools in the
past because of bullying by peers and what she felt was retaliation from
teachers she reported the harassment to.

This is not to say that the implementation of the regulation hasn’t improved at
all. Many more students reported seeing “Respect
for All” posters and brochures
in 2012, an increase of more than 30% since
2009. The program, initially a measure to combat homophobia, was expanded in
2009 and has become the Department of Education’s anti-bullying curriculum.

But students also expressed doubt that setting aside a day for anti-bullying
awareness or putting up posters was enough. Aronno Shafi, a student at
Stuyvesant High School, said, “I remember that [during Respect for All] week, a
lot of jokes were being made. ‘I can’t be mean to you today, it’s Respect for
All week.’ But when you go back into real life, no one remembers, ‘Oh yeah, I
have to respect you.’ It’s do-whatever-your-impulse-says.”

What interventions make a difference? Schools that took bullying prevention
seriously, according to Khin Mai Aung, Educational Equity Director at AALDEF,
had incorporated anti-bullying measures into a curriculum, had student clubs
that focused on the issue, or enlisted outside organizations or peer educators
to provide anti-bias training. Other
from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard
University shows that bullying prevention programs are more successful when they
go beyond issuing warnings and also train students in new skills, from empathy
and communication skills to how to be an effective bystander in a bullying

Above all, neither the community organizations nor the
students believe that harsher punishment for bullies is the answer. The report
recommends restorative justice measures, along with methods that promote
students’ social and emotional development. “Suspensions don’t work,” Shafi
bluntly said. Instead, many students believed that the most important work lay
in fostering more understanding of cultural and religious difference.  Tasmia Hussain, a student at Manhattan Hunter
Science School, suggested, “Inform people about different cultures and
different religious views. Even though you are categorized as white, inside
that white, you are either Polish or Irish or something, you know? So if you
learn about cultures, not only Asian American cultures but also other groups,
maybe you wouldn’t say ignorant things.” Pawanpreet Singh echoed that
sentiment. “In Global History class, if even talk about it, we spend five
minutes on the Sikh faith. But we spend one to two days each on other
religions.” Rather than talk about his faith or his beliefs, bullying had
previously driven him to hide his difference. “I
personally have denied my roots to fit in before. I also attempted to
change the way I appeared. All to no avail, the bullying continued despite my
actions to change myself… There are many cases were youth will try to change
themselves, it's pretty common.”

Of course, key to implementation of any anti-bullying program is the training
of school staff and teachers. Currently, the regulation requires only one
person per school to know and understand the rules regarding bullying.
Moreover, school safety agents are not covered by the regulation, although both
students and teachers report that they have seen school safety agents bully and
harass students based on their identity. 

According to a 2010 survey of New York City teachers by
AALDEF, the Sikh Coalition and the New York Civil Liberties Union, teachers
also identified the need for more training and more support from their school
administration. In the survey of 198 teachers across 177 NYC schools, less than
a third had received training on diversity, bias-based harassment, or the
Respect for All curriculum. Educators also expressed their frustration with
superficial anti-bullying measures, emphasizing the need for a consistent
school-wide approach and more leadership on the issue. Counselors reported
receiving a handout in their mailbox and nothing more, while teachers spoke of
administrations that left the bullying response to be resolved by individual
teachers, leading to a case-by-case approach to the problem.

As one teacher shared, “My school is rife with xenophobia,
homophobia, and racism, particularly to students of perceived Mexican,
continental African, and Arab/Muslim background. There are things I as a
teacher can do in my classroom, but I have very little influence in holding my
administration accountable if they do not agree with my suggestions.”

After five years, it is still unclear which city schools
have model programs and which have the most room to improve. While the
regulation requires the city’s Department of Education to collect the bullying
data on an annual basis, it has not released any reports on bullying to the
general public. Up until now, the three surveys assessing bias-based bullying
in schools have been led by grassroots groups and non-profit organizations.
That is why they are also calling for the Department of Education to provide
annual public reports on the bullying data collected. Earlier this year, the City
Comptroller’s office
also took the DOE to task for not updating its online
reporting system to track bias-based bullying separately, relying instead on
subjective judgments made by staff sifting through thousands of incident reports
by hand. DOE representative responded, “For the first time this year, as part
of the state’s Dignity for All Students Act, we have updated the Discipline
Code to separate out bullying from all harassment.”  DOE spokesperson Marge Feinberg also clarified
that this will be the first year in which the DOE’s reports to City Council
will separate out bias-based bullying from other incidents.

This year alone, the bullying-related suicides of 12-year old Joel Morales of
Harlem and 12-year old Gabriel Molina in Queens have raised tough questions
about the DOE’s responsibility to prevent bullying, especially when the school
and the DOE have been notified of the bullying prior to the suicides. What
emerges from the report and from student testimonies is that there is still
much room for improvement. As the school year begins, and as cyber-bullying and
other harassment continues to claim young lives, addressing bias-related
bullying in New York City classrooms appears to be more critical than


Sukjong Hong is a writer and artist based in Brooklyn, New York.
Currently she is a Create Change fellow with the Laundromat Project,
working on oral history projects to highlight the stories of
Asian American communities. She was a 2012-2013 Open City Creative
Nonfiction Fellow with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. You can
find her writing at Open City Magazine, Triple Canopy magazine, Foreign
Policy in Focus, and The Feminist Wire. Twitter: @hongriver