The justice department has authority to investigate and resolve complaints of religious and national-origin harassment through its enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to its news release.
It steps in when a student is targeted because of his or her identity, and the harassment is severe and persistent, and the remedies are ineffective or indifferent, said Gurjot Kaur, staff attorney for the Sikh Coalition, which represented the student.
The department had previously intervened in cases involving harassment of an Asian student and a gay student. But this is the first time it wielded its enforcing authority in a case involving a Sikh student, she said.
The settlement, which took affect on May 7, has provisions that are unique to Sikhs. It requires that the school district provide a Punjabi interpreter for his parents to interact with school officials, and translate all essential school documents into Punjabi at the parents’ request.
It also requires training for students and staff on post-9/11 religious intolerance and the perpetuation of negative stereotypes.
“That is a first,” Gurjot Kaur said.
According to the US Commission on Civil Rights, rates of bullying against Sikh children “range from roughly half to over three-quarters.”
The Sikh student, who was not identified because he is a minor, was harassed since second grade, she said. He was harassed at school and on the school bus.
He was called “Osama,” “Aladdin,” “terrorist,” and “curry head.” He also was told he has a “cheese ball” or a “bomb” on his head, and to “go back to your country.”
He would complain to teachers, but they ignored him. He even reported the harassment to his principal when he was in fifth grade.
“He felt that every time he filed a complained, he would be the one (punished) by being forced to sit in front of the class or bus,” Gurjot Kaur said. It is the bully who should be required to do that.
By middle school, the incidents culminated into physical violence, and he suffered injuries. The school sometimes suspended the bully for a few days. But that did not solve the problem.
Then, someone cut a few strands of his hair.
The coalition took his case in October 2012 and alerted the school district of the long term and ongoing harassment. The New York-based advocacy group demanded that school officials develop safety plans to protect the student and implement anti-harassment training for students and staff to control the hostile environment at his school.
But after repeated inaction, the coalition filed legal complaints with the justice department, alleging violations of federal law. The justice department investigated the complaints.
According to the settlement document, the Sikh student was subjected to religious and national origin harassment at Peachtree Charter Middle School in the DeKalb County School District.
The department found ongoing harassment of the Sikh student. Incidents were being reported even as the justice department was conducting its investigation.
The district and the department reached an agreement.
The district agreed to designate a special administrator to manage the Sikh student’s safety and assure that the district complied with the agreement.
It agreed to implement a safety plan to ensure that the Sikh student is safe at his middle school and when he goes to high school next year, and on his school busses.
The district will work with a consultant to develop and implement mandatory anti-harassment training for all students and staff at the middle and high schools. At a minimum all training will include “a facilitated discussion of the root causes of religious and national origin harassment and the harms resulting from such conduct, including but not limited to issues related to post-9/11 backlash and the perpetuation of negative stereotypes impacting the Sikh, Muslim, Arab-American, and South Asian communities,” the agreement says.
The school district also agreed to provide Punjabi-language services.
“Upon parental request, the district shall communicate verbally with the (student’s) parents in Punjabi through a qualified interpreter and shall ensure that all essential information (e.g., information related to the safety of the student, discipline notices, health notices, notices requiring parent signature or permission) provided to native English speaking parents is available to the (student’s) parents in Punjabi,” the agreement says.
Bus drivers were instructed to seat the three bullies on the bus “in the front seats, immediately behind the driver.” One of the bullies at school is now required to be seated in the front of the class, and another bully was completely removed from all his classes.
The Sikh student is allowed ask for a counselor or a campus security officer to accompany him in school. And he can carry a cell phone at school for emergency purposes, to call his family or lawyer if he feels unsafe.
The agreement will remain in effect until the end of the 2014-2015 school year, when he finishes tenth grade.
“Every student should be able to attend school without fear of being harassed and bullied because of his skin color or religious beliefs,” said United States Attorney Sally Quillian Yates, in the May 7 news release.
This case has also led to a separate and ongoing investigation into whether the district’s anti-harassment policies meet federal standards, whether its policies are consistently implemented, and whether employees are adequately trained to implement those policies, the department said.