San Diego Unified's Effort Against Islamophobia Draws Praise, Criticism

One of the nation's largest school districts has launched a campaign against Islamophobia, drawing praise and criticism.

The San Diego Unified School District's multiyear plan includes a letter addressing Islamophobia to staff and parents of its 132,000 students. It's expected to be drafted and sent before Ramadan begins in late May. The district is also reviewing internal staff calendars to make sure Muslim holidays are recognized.

Next school year, it will review materials on Muslim culture for libraries, provide resources to teachers and engage in partnerships with the Council on American Islamic Relations. Over several years, it plans to consider high school clubs that promote American Muslim culture, create "safe spaces" for students and train staff about Muslim culture.

The plan drew little attention when the board approved it 4-0 on April 4, with one member absent. Public comments from staff and community members were uniformly positive.

"We believe this is a great first step in the direction of protecting Muslim students from the bullying that is a direct result of the growing Islamophobia in our state and nation," Hanif Mohebi, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' San Diego chapter, said after the vote. "Other school districts should follow this lead, and we will be happy to work with them to provide resources and trainings."

Pushback gradually spread on the internet and social media, with written attacks on Islam and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. A Sunday article on the far-right website Breitbart News drew hundreds of reader comments. The headline of a story on the Angry Patriot website that had 35,000 Facebook 'likes' read, "Islamic Takeover CONFIRMED - American School Surrenders to SHARIA LAW."

The school district said on its website that the plan addresses "some of the specific challenges faced by the Muslim student community" after the Muslim community expressed concern about student safety last summer. "We strongly believe students cannot learn if they are afraid, and so this initiative to combat Islamophobia is focused on eliminating the fear faced by children," it says.

The district said it is not endorsing Islam, favoring a religion or imposing Sharia law.

As for 'safe spaces,' the district says, "Schools with large Muslim communities may choose to make areas available for prayer, if that is requested by their parents and students. However, this is no more or less than we would do to accommodate Christians who want to pray at school, or members of other faiths. It is not uncommon, for example, for our schools to have a prayer club that meets before the start of school."

San Diego is the latest school district to express solidarity with Muslim students. In September, Kansas City Public Schools passed a resolution condemning violence and hate speech and expressing support for students who worship Islam. The Oakland Unified School District in California said in a board resolution in November, "The 2016 presidential election has created an atmosphere of fear among immigrants, Muslims and other vulnerable groups in Oakland."

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