As Muslim students fight for protection, some parents battle to keep Islam out of schools

The World
Two women wearing head scarves watch a man at a podium.

On July 26, 2016, a young girl stepped up to the mic at a meeting of the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education

“Good evening. My name is Sohaila Gebaly,” she said. “I’m going to 6th grade. I love school and science.” 

Gebaly went on to tell board members that the year before, three boys in school started calling her names. When no one stopped them, they hit her, kicked her and pushed her. 

“I didn’t feel safe,” Gebaly said. “I told my teacher I didn’t feel safe, but she didn’t react to that.” 

Gebaly was one of several Muslim students and parents with similar stories. 

Board members were supportive, pointing to a national climate of escalating tension fueled by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim comments. Activists were documenting a dramatic rise in hate crimes across the country, particularly against Muslims. The Council on American-Islamic Relations — an organization that’s a prominent voice for Muslims — launched a national effort to work with schools to combat Islamophobic bullying. 

San Diego is the first place where a small group of parents pushed back. 

The night Gebaly and others testified, asking for more protection, board members took action, voting unanimously to develop an anti-bullying program focused on Islamophobia. Over the next few months, San Diego district staff started putting the new program together with some help from CAIR.

“There were some books that that CAIR recommended,” says Mike Sullivan, an attorney for the school district. “The district vetted those. Anyone who looks at those books sees they're not advocating at all for Islamic beliefs. They're simply trying to give an understanding and an understanding of why bullying is not appropriate.” 

On April 4, 2017, Superintendent Cindy Marten presented a plan for the new initiative: It would create safe spaces for Muslim students; send staff and parents letters about Islamophobia; make sure calendars list Muslim holidays; and include Islamic history and culture in social studies lessons. 

Kids who were caught bullying Muslim students wouldn’t be disciplined with detention — schools would instead use a restorative justice method, an organized mediation technique where the accused student and alleged victim talk to repair their relationship. Again, the board voted to unanimously approve the plan. 

That’s when Jose Velazquez, a Navy veteran whose kids go to San Diego schools, went searching for an attorney who would listen to his concerns about CAIR. 

“CAIR is creating division using religion and that’s not right,” he says. “Their agenda is to promote Islam in the school district, in the schools.”

Velazquez didn’t understand why the district needed a special new program. He says he got bullied as a kid, and his children had been bullied, and they just went to the principal and complained. That worked, Velazquez says, so it should work for Muslim kids, too. 

He found a team of pro bono lawyers called the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund who wanted to help him make his case. They filed an injunction on the grounds that the district was singling out Muslim students as a privileged religious group.

“If they’re going to work with CAIR, then any other organization should have the same equal access. But we doubt that would happen,” says Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund attorney Daniel Piedra. “So we think the reasonable solution would be just to have CAIR out of the schools completely.” 

In response to concerns, the San Diego board of education revised their earlier plans. They decided to instead create an intercultural committee, and work more with the Anti-Defamation League — a group who says its values are rooted in Jewish beliefs. 

“We don't think there was anything inappropriate that they did initially,” Sullivan says, but the district revised the program “to make sure that it was clear to everyone that they were not favoring any religion, and that this was an effort to prevent all bullying with regard to anyone with religious beliefs in the district.”  

That move by the district — taking a step away from CAIR — frustrated another group of parents who spoke at a July 11, 2017 board meeting.

“I want to thank the school board for the policy to combat Islamophobia,” said parent Laura Beiser. “Given the current misinformation and fear shown by a small group of parents, it is clear that this program is much needed in our communities.”

But the group of parents worried about CAIR’s involvement with the district wasn’t satisfied. They said people working on the revised program were still talking with CAIR. So the lawsuit continued, and it got a lot of play in the media. CAIR’s attorney, Gadeir Abbas says that’s part of what the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund was trying to accomplish. 

“Their theory of why San Diego district’s interactions with CAIR are problematic is premised on these conspiratorial notions that CAIR is not an American organization run by US citizens ... and somehow CAIR is a nefarious group aimed at displacing American law,” he says.  

CAIR has never been charged with criminal activity.

“I think there is a very determined, well-organized group of organizations that have as their mission the marginalization of the Muslim community all across the US,” Abbas says. “This lawsuit legitimizes the false beliefs that anti-Muslim bullying is a fiction, when in fact it’s an emerging phenomenon that affects most Muslim students anywhere in the country.”

Abbas says that’s why CAIR’s working with many students and school districts nationwide to address Islamophobic bullying. 

“The San Diego case, unfortunately, might be the first of many attempts to exclude CAIR and Muslim communities from their own schools in an attempt to isolate the Muslim communities and allow anti-Muslim bullying to fester,” he says. 

Velazquez says that he just wants all children, including his own, to be treated the same at school. 

“I got kids in school. They should not be treated differently,” he says. “CAIR itself called us Islamophobics, bigots, racists. ... You know, they don’t even know me. I’m Hispanic. Served my country. Every time someone says ‘Islamophobia,’ I think that’s just another reason to cover up the real facts going on.”

Sullivan says the district has always maintained that no one’s being treated differently, and it works with all community groups, including religious ones. 

“What plaintiffs have requested is the notion that the district not have any relationship with CAIR,” Sullivan says. “They think it's inappropriate to have any relationship with CAIR because they disagree with CAIR. That is what would be inappropriate.”

Sullivan says if the school district refused to have any contact with CAIR, that, in and of itself, would be religious discrimination. 

A judge heard arguments on the case in mid-July. A decision is forthcoming. 

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