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Muslim advocates, family raise alarm after classmate removed teen’s hijab at a Ky. school

chairs in a classroom
MChe Lee

Last fall in Hardin County, a white middle school boy allegedly tried to rip the hijab from a Black, Muslim teen’s head. It resulted in a physical altercation.

A middle school in Hardin County suspended a Black, Muslim teen for defending herself after a white classmate allegedly tried to remove her hijab. Meanwhile, the student who advocates say initiated the altercation remained in school.

The incident took place last October at James T. Alton Middle School in Vine Grove. The 14-year-old Muslim student told LPM News she was walking down a hallway at school with a couple of friends when the white student began “blocking” one of her friends from passing.

“We exchanged words, they weren't pleasant. And so he didn't like what I had to say,” the Muslim student said. Adding, as they were walking away, “He came right behind me and pulled my hijab.”

A hijab is a religious head covering that can signify a person’s commitment to religion and faith as well as self.

The Muslim student’s mother, Kenneisha Turner Wright, watched a video of the incident without sound. She said the other student put her daughter in a vulnerable position, partially exposing her hair. LPM News is not using the name of either student in this story.

“No man outside of her family's ever seen her hair, and not having a covering on it's like being naked for us,” Turner Wright said. “I could see [in the video] her head getting tilted back when he was pulling her hijab. She had to grab hold of it and adjust it.”

Turner Wright said school officials downplayed the other student’s actions.

“The principal and the sheriff deputy that was there at the school more so just felt like, ‘Oh, we're so ashamed of, and disappointed in what your daughter had to say to him,’” Turner Wright said. “It was made like him touching her hijab and pulling it was not a big deal. They didn't care.”

The persistence of anti-Muslim bullying

A 2022 report from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding showed nearly half of Muslim families with school-aged youth reported a child having faced religious-based bullying.

Turner Wright, the Muslim girl’s mother, said religious targeting is a byproduct of ignorance. She added, if the school shared information about Islamic faith and culture with students, it could help prevent future harm.

“We just want to get the suspension taken off of her record, and for the school to educate students a little bit about our faith and why the hijab is obligatory for us to wear. So maybe they can understand why this shouldn’t happen again,” Turner Wright said. “Just a simple thing of respecting one's belief. This is what we believe, please respect that.”

She added the incident last fall wasn’t the first time her daughter was subjected to anti-Muslim rhetoric and bullying.

“She hears offensive things even from her teachers, when they're teaching anything pertaining to Islam or Muslims, it's always negative stuff to say,” Turner Wright said. “When 9/11 is spoken about at school, it immediately just attacks all Muslims. You know, in every religion, there's bad incidents that happen…this was a terroristic thing that we ourselves as Muslims don't condone.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, published a report in 2021 that documented 114 school-related incidents ranging from bullying, Islamophobic school curriculum, and being denied excused absences to celebrate holidays. The group has also said complaints from students and families spike around anniversaries of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack.

In 2021, Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu, education and outreach director of CAIR-Philadelphia, shared a document with Pennsylvania and Delaware public school officials citing these claims.

“Some complaints involve peer-to-peer bullying, while others involve anti-Muslim content in lesson plans. In some instances, schools have used educational materials about 9/11 created by anti-Muslim hate groups,” Tekelioglu wrote.

The document also included comprehensive resources aimed at helping educators approaches when teaching diverse classrooms about Sept. 11, 2001.

Discrepant punishments and requests for change

Religious advocates with CAIR, say the student who instigated the incident got in-school detention. The school suspended the Muslim student for three days for the physical altercation that ensued as a result.

Turner Wright said, while she doesn’t condone violence, her daughter acted in self defense. She also said she understands why her daughter was disciplined, but is concerned it’s disparate in comparison to that of the white student who made the first advance.

“She's got two strikes against her for being an African American, and being Muslim,” Turner Wright said.

A 2021 study from the American Psychological Association showed Black students more often face harsher disciplinary action at school than their white counterparts. As a result, the heavier punishments can have damaging consequences on students’ academic performance — even years later, according to the published research. According to greatschools.org, 62% of students at James T. Alton Middle, are white.

Robert McCaw is director of government affairs for CAIR, the national organization that advocates for American Muslims’ civil rights.

“Your school not only punished Turner Wright’s daughter - who as a Black female Muslim reportedly fought off the physical advances of a white male classmate - but that her punishment was more severe than the other student involved,” McCaw wrote in a letter to Hardin County school district officials.

In the letter, McCaw also asked officials to re-evaluate the incident and resulting disciplinary measures with the consideration that Turner Wright’s daughter “may have fought off a possible hate crime — the removal of her hijab.”

Earlier this year, David Wilson, one of the Hardin County Board of Education’s attorneys, responded to CAIR’s requests. In a letter, he said the district reviewed and gave “serious consideration” to McCaw’s appeal — as well as his request to talk about discrepancies in the students’ respective punishments.

“As I am sure you can appreciate, the disciplinary action as to the other student is not something the district is able or willing to discuss with third parties,” Wilson wrote. “The District must respectfully decline your request for further discussion and evaluation of this situation.”

James T. Alton Middle’s principal and an attorney for Hardin County Schools did not respond to LPM News’ requests for comment.

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