Last month my son Azaad, just two months shy of three years old, started preschool in Hoboken, New Jersey where I live with my wife, Dilly, and younger son Nishaan.
Letting go of your child for their first 6 hour day of school, away from the comforts of their home, can be anxiety provoking for any parent. However, as identifiable Sikh Americans, Dilly and I had other reasons to be anxious.
Before Azaad (whose name means “freedom”) went to school, Dilly shared her fears that he would endure bullying and perhaps even violence because of the small Sikh turban he wears as a marker of his faith.
I too share Dilly’s fears. Though I was born and raised proudly an American, like most Sikh American children I too was also bullied in school, at times quite severely. I put up with taunts, pulling of my long religiously-mandated hair, and other forms of violence.
Because of the work by community-based organizations like the Sikh Coalition, we know that the vast majority of Sikh children experience bullying in schools. In New York City the Coalition found that 65% of the Sikh children endure harassment in school. In the San Francisco Bay Area, an astonishing 69% of identifiable Sikh school children reported being bullied.
This past Saturday, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders organized a Bullying Prevention Summit in New York City. At the Summit we met with and heard from hundreds of youth, community leaders, and local government officials on the widespread nature of school bullying in our communities. Parents and youth from Richmond Hill, Queens; Bridgewater, New Jersey; and South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, made it to Manhattan on an unusually snowy day to share their experiences and be connected to federal government resources.
At the Summit we released new data finding that AAPI students are 20% more likely than other racial groups to be bullied in the classroom, and 3 times as likely to be cyber-bullied once or twice a month. More importantly, we heard directly from youth and parents on what it’s like to be AAPI or Muslim, or Asian and gay in school today.
We heard from students like a young, recent Vietnamese immigrant from South Philadelphia High School who endured being set upon by a mob of students and yet found the courage and determination to exercise her right to organize for justice for herself and other Asian American students. We also heard from a Muslim parent, whose son was subjected to numerous references to “bombing” the school in his eighth grade yearbook by both classmates and tragically even a teacher. She was able to conduct cultural competency training on American Muslims and Arab Americans for her son's school district. Her empowered son now makes it a point to stick up for other children who are harassed in school.
We also shared government and private resources to combat bullying at the Summit and talked about solutions. Representatives from the Department of Education and Department of Justice explained to parents how they can file a complaint of school bullying with the federal government. Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services shared the StopBullying.gov website and its resources on identifying and tackling the issue. Facebook and MTV brought their efforts to eliminate cyber-bullying to the attention of parents. Finally, the students closed the day actively by participating in the Student Identification and Resolution of Issues Together (SPIRIT) program conducted by the Community Relations Service of the U.S. Department of Justice. During their SPIRIT session, students were able identify for themselves the challenges they face in school and come up with solutions on their own.
Perhaps it was the SPIRIT training that left the deepest impression on me. I heard from a young Sikh girl - she could not have been more than 7 or 8 years old - who described having to protect her younger brother from having his turban pulled off on the school bus. I then saw her brother, a very little boy with a small turban and was immediately reminded of my little boy, Azaad. My heart sank at the thought that this young boy is now experiencing what I once experienced and what my boy could experience in school.
As a Commissioner on the White House Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, I am proud to serve the broader AAPI community, but I am always mindful that I am also a member of that community as well. I deeply and personally feel my community’s joys and pains.
It is in this spirit that this Commission and Initiative organized this past Saturday’s Bullying Prevention Summit in New York City. But we know that our work is not done. We will continue to work until every child in our community and all communities can go to school to focus on their education and well-being. As a Commissioner and as a community member, I am acutely aware of our responsibilities to ensure that the future of our children is as safe and bright as possible.
Amardeep Singh serves on the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and is the Co-Founder and Director of Programs at the Sikh Coalition.