San Diego school district and parents reach settlement over Muslim civil rights program

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Supporters of a lawsuit against the San Diego school district listen during a news conference in San Diego on May 25, 2017. Six parents have sued the San Diego school district, alleging that its anti-Islamophobia campaign favors Islam over other religions and grants special protections to Muslim students. District officials have vigorously defended the campaign, saying bullying of Muslim students is pervasive and vastly underreported.

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Elliot Spagat/The Associated Press

The San Diego Unified School District settled in late March with a group of parents who sued over the district’s possible partnership with the Council on American–Islamic Relations, a national advocacy organization, on an anti-Islamophobic bullying program in schools.

The agreement specifies that guest speakers from religious organizations are not permitted to present to students on religious topics. Educators can’t show a preference for one religious viewpoint over another. And religions must be taught in the context of world history, with the “time and attention spent discussing each religion being proportionate to its impact on history and human development,” the agreement says. 

But just how that’s measured, and who does the measuring, isn’t clear.

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

The group of parents who sued, including members of the San Diego Asian Americans For Equality Foundation, say the settlement is a victory.

“Any speaker from CAIR or from any other religious organization is not supposed to talk about the religion topic to the students. And that’s an additional protection, from my point of view.” 

Frank Zu, San Diego Asian Americans for Equality Foundation, board member

“Any speaker from CAIR or from any other religious organization is not supposed to talk about the religion topic to the students. And that’s an additional protection, from my point of view,” said foundation board member Frank Xu.

The district’s attorney, Andra M. Greene, says teachers can still talk specifically about Islamophobic bullying, but they will also talk about all kinds of bullying. She says she’d hardly call this settlement a victory for the parents who sued because the district was doing everything in the agreement already, and nothing’s really changing.

Gadeir Abbas, CAIR’s attorney, agrees, but he sees the lawsuit itself as evidence of growing Islamophobia. He points to a recent mosque arson attack in San Diego, where the perpetrator referenced terrorist attacks in March at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 50 people.

“It is not a coincidence that a lawsuit challenging the very existence of anti-Muslim bullying occurred in the San Diego school district and that there was this act of hateful intimidation in the wake of the New Zealand attacks. These are all related to each other.”

Gadeir Abbas, CAIR’s attorney

“It is not a coincidence that a lawsuit challenging the very existence of anti-Muslim bullying occurred in the San Diego school district and that there was this act of hateful intimidation in the wake of the New Zealand attacks,” Abbas said. “These are all related to each other.”

The lawsuit began in 2016 when Muslim parents and students came to the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education about bullying. CAIR offered to partner with the district on an anti-bullying curriculum. That curriculum would have included creating safe spaces for Muslim students and sending staff and parents letters about Islamophobia. CAIR hoped that the relationship with the San Diego district would be a model for other partnerships with other schools around the country.

Xu says parents sued in part because they didn’t believe there was an increase in Islamophobic bullying.

Related: 'It feels like it happened right here,' says one American Muslim

“It’s wrong for [the district] to partner with CAIR, which is obviously a religious organization, to address the Islamophobia — if it exists,” he said. “Because they work together to indoctrinate the students. And it’s clearly prohibited in our Constitution.”

Frank Zu, San Diego Asian Americans for Equality Foundation, board member

“It’s wrong for [the district] to partner with CAIR, which is obviously a religious organization, to address the Islamophobia — if it exists,” he said. “Because they work together to indoctrinate the students. And it’s clearly prohibited in our Constitution.”

Xu says he’s been criticized a lot for saying things like that; he says people tell him that that statement itself is Islamophobic. And Xu says that frustrates him because he’s an immigrant from China who experienced not having freedom of religion and speech, and that’s why it’s so important for him to uphold it here.

Related: Muslim women are speaking out against abuse with #MosqueMeToo

The district revised its plans to work with CAIR in 2017, to the frustration of many parents, Muslim and non-Muslim. The parent group, represented by the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, kept suing because they said the district was still exchanging emails with CAIR about Islamophobic bullying. Xu says that amounted to them privileging one religious group over others.

In response to being called a religious organization by Xu, Abbas says CAIR is a civil rights organization, not a theological one, but is “grounded in faith.” He says CAIR will continue working with other school districts elsewhere on anti-bullying efforts because those efforts are more needed than ever.

“I do believe that this is the first of what’s going to be many attempts to exclude the Muslim community from public schools throughout the country,” Abbas said. “This is a sign of things to come.”

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