November 2019

Advocating for Muslim Students

By Hulya Ermis Demirtas, Ph.D., NCC
The population of school-aged children in the United States is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. In schools, school counselors play a key role as advocates to “maintain the highest respect for student diversity,” as required in the ethical standards of the American School Counselor Association. One group represented in this diverse student body is Muslim students. However, many school counselors lack the cultural knowledge to work effectively with Muslim students in an ethical manner, despite their growing number in public schools and their frequent adverse experiences related to bullying and discrimination.

Experiences and Major Challenges of Muslim Students in U.S. Schools

Muslim students’ experiences may vary depending on the multicultural disposition of their school. Highly diverse schools may provide many accommodations such as adding the major Muslim holy days to the school calendar (as in New York City), while this level of respect for diversity may not be present in other schools, as demonstrated in a 2014 Oklahoma case.

Bullying and Discrimination
Although bullying is a fairly common problem throughout the U.S. education system, with 22 percent of students reporting such experiences, Muslim students find themselves the victim of bullying more often than their non-Muslim peers. In 2016, the Council on American-Islamic Relations – California (CAIR-CA) surveyed 1,041 Muslim students ages 11 to 18 and found:
  • 53 percent were made fun of or verbally insulted or abused for being a Muslim
  • 36 percent of those wearing hijab became targets of having their hijab pulled off
  • 19 percent were physically harassed
  • 31 percent felt unsafe, unwelcomed and disrespected in school
  • 26 percent became victims of cyberbullying
  • 38 percent were bullied or discriminated against by administrators, teachers, or other officials at school
Otherized/In-Betweenness
A common stereotypical view paints Muslim students as a homogenous group of perpetual immigrants despite the high diversity among this population and the fact that half are U.S.-born citizens. This view positions Muslim students as “others.” Muslim students have reported being treated as if they are “different species” or “aliens” even though they see themselves as just “normal teenagers.”

Difficulty in Following Religious and School Practices
In several recent studies, Muslim students reported challenges related to following their religious and school practices. These included performing the prayers at school; missing school on the first day of the multi-day Eid holidays; fasting and feeling extra tired particularly later in the day during the month of Ramadan; having difficulty accessing halal food at school; and navigating relationships, even friendships, with students of the opposite sex. Muslim students also identified curriculum-related difficulties, such as Islam as a part of their identity not being included or represented neutrally, changing into athletic clothes in an open locker room and taking showers after sports.

Consequences of these Challenges

The increasingly discriminatory school climate can have adverse psychosocial consequences for Muslim students. Acculturative stress and identity crisis may lead them to display higher symptoms of depression and subclinical paranoia. They also have reported psychological distress, low self-esteem, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and adjustment disorder. Other negative outcomes of peer rejection, bullying and discrimination against Muslim students can include social isolation and withdrawal, school-related problems and school withdrawal and decreased access to equal education and employment opportunities. These pressures may push them toward private Islamic schools, which might result in unsuccessful integration of Muslim youth into the U.S. society as healthy citizens.

Practical Suggestions for School Counselors

The following suggestions can assist school counselors to advocate for and better serve Muslim students. School counselors can:
  • Further educate themselves on the teachings of Islam and the challenges Muslim students experience, such as by attending workshops, and reflect on their own perceptions, biases and beliefs about Muslims; respect individuality and variation among Muslims regarding showing and practicing their faith.
  • Support Muslim students by helping them find ways to accommodate their religious practices such as locating a meditation room for their canonical prayers or helping them to go to the library during lunch period during fasting in the month of Ramadan.
  • Assist Muslim students with forming alliances and student clubs with other underrepresented students facing similar struggles. Possible approaches include a multicultural student organization, broad enough to include other racial, religious or ethnic minorities, that might organize school-wide events such as Multicultural Appreciation Week.
  • Help Muslim students connect with reliable Muslim student organizations if available (such as in universities), collaborate with local Islamic community members to provide school staff with professional development workshops and provide guidelines about Muslim holidays and traditions, such as resources from CAIR (https://www.cair.com/).
Read more:

“Supporting Muslim students: A guide to understanding the diverse issues of today’s classrooms,” by L. Mahalingappa, T. L., Rodriguez & N. Polat, 2017

“Growing up between two cultures: Problems and issues of Muslim children,” edited by F. Salili and U. Hoosain, 2014

Hulya Ermis-Demirtas, Ph.D., NCC, presented on this topic at the 2019 ASCA annual conference. She is an assistant professor of school counseling in the department of School Counseling, School Psychology, and Special Education at the University of Wisconsin-Stout; contact her at ermish@uwstout.edu. Please contact the author for a complete list of references for this article.