Muslim-rights advocates filed a civil rights complaint against the Academy for College and Career Exploration in Hampden, citing allegations of assault and bullying against two Afghan sisters who attend school there.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, asked the federal government to investigate following a September incident in which a group of students allegedly removed the hijab of a 16-year-old girl and attempted to choke her with it in the bathroom, while a school employee allegedly locked the bathroom door, according to the organization.
The staff member was fired in October after the school system conducted an investigation, according to a report from WJZ-TV, a media partner of The Baltimore Banner.
The incident left bruises and swelling on the student, according to a letter CAIR sent to the Baltimore School Police in October.
“We have given Baltimore City Public Schools a chance to do right by this family, and they have not,” Gadeir Abbas, a senior litigation attorney at CAIR, said in a statement.
While the school system conducted investigations and disciplined those involved, CAIR said the school has not protected the Afghan students from further incidents.
In a letter to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Abbas wrote that the sisters “were tripped, pushed, have had food thrown at them” and “been taunted about their English language skills.”
“The school has failed to keep these children safe,” Zainab Chaudry, the CAIR’s director in the Maryland office, told The Baltimore Banner. “There is still a repetitive pattern of harassment, intimidation and bullying that the children are enduring.”
Following the alleged September attack, Chaudry called on the school system to address the family’s safety concerns. After the first incident in September, three students from the same group pulled the shoulder of another Afghan student, the sister of the 16-year-old, according to Chaudry.
Before the staff member’s firing, Chaudry called on Baltimore School Police to conduct an investigation and take corrective action against the staff member, and implement systemwide anti-bullying training and cultural competency training for students and educators.
Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises wrote in an October letter to the state superintendent of schools that the district had sent “supports and safety plans” to the family of the students. Santelises also said the school held a “restorative circle” and meetings to discuss religious and cultural attire. The school conducted investigations on the two incidents and imposed “disciplinary consequences,” according to the letter.
CAIR initially praised the school’s response. But after a couple of weeks, an advocate for Afghan refugees reached out to CAIR again on behalf of the family, Chaudry told The Baltimore Banner, citing a number of incidents of alleged bullying against other children in the family. Four of the family’s five children attended the high school at the time.
“The culture that permits this kind of behavior to perpetuate despite the extent and the seriousness of the attack that the student endured is not acceptable,” Chaudry told The Baltimore Banner. “We have called on elected leaders to speak out to affirm the rights and the dignity of Muslim children and all children within our school systems.”
The school is in communication with the family, Chaudry said, and the family advocate is working with the school system and the enrollment office to figure out where to transfer the children. She said the father is concerned about the safety of his children and wary in sending them back to class. When the 16-year-old arrived at home the day of the incident, she was visibly distraught, Chaudry said.
The students have not attended the school for at least a week, Chaudry said, and that has taken a toll on the family. The father was relieved after moving the family to the United States, believing he could focus on his priority of sending his children, particularly his daughters, to school. After the Taliban took over the Afghan government, girls have been forced out of school.
Chaudry said another family brought up similar incidents happening to their child that goes to the Academy for College and Career Exploration, but the family did not want to address the incident out of fear of retaliation.
At least 481 Afghan refugees resettled in Baltimore as of June of this year, according to the International Rescue Committee. Chaudry said “dozens” of incidents involving Muslim children in the school system were reported to CAIR this year. At least 12 involved Afghan refugees, including eight in the Baltimore area, she said.
Chaudry stressed that she hopes the civil rights complaint would lead to “restorative justice,” where the school system would engage students in more conversations. A suspension alone won’t lead students to understand why the behavior wasn’t acceptable, she said.
Chaudry called out the lack of public support for the family, saying “the silence from elected officials” is disturbing.
“These children, they deserve to feel supported,” Chaudry said. “Implementing policies is a next step, but not even a public announcement or acknowledgement of the pain and the suffering that these families have gone through is something that reinforces the idea that Muslims are not welcome here.”
A Baltimore City Public Schools spokesperson said the system has not received a copy of the complaint except for from the media and cannot comment on active litigation.
After hearing of the incident, the Muslim liaison within the mayor’s office met with CAIR, the school district and local Muslim leaders to “discuss how the City can best support our Muslim residents,” said Jack French, a spokesperson for Mayor Brandon Scott.
“Mayor Scott and the City of Baltimore stand strongly against any and all hate crimes,” French said. “We stand with our Muslim community and value them as an integral part of Baltimore’s unique cultural tapestry.”