SAN JOSE: Eagerly anticipating her English students delving into “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” Maimona Afzal Berta arrived early to school September 11. Her classroom walls at Fischer Middle School depicted a London skyline; soon the room would also include the famous Platform 9¾, a Hogwarts sorting hat and hanging replicas of floating lanterns.
But on walking up she was stunned by a hateful reality. Anti-Muslim slurs and obscenities were scrawled on her classroom’s windows and door. Spray-painted graffiti also defaced other rooms and rooftop air-conditioning units at the San Jose campus.
“It was devastating,” the special-education teacher said. “I felt completely targeted, and not even safe in a place I consider home.”
The attacks came after multiple instances of harassment during the spring semester, aimed at her, a classroom aide and an after-school supervisor, all women who wear a hijab, the Muslim headscarf. By Berta’s count, there have been 15 incidents from January to November. The other two women could not be reached for comment.
The district reported the graffiti and another later harassment incident to police. Some students have been disciplined, but no suspects have been arrested for the graffiti. Fischer does not have surveillance cameras.
“At the Alum Rock Union School District, we will never tolerate any behaviour that makes either our students or team members feel marginalised,” Superintendent Hilaria Bauer wrote Monday in a statement. She and other officials have expressed sympathy for Berta and outrage at the harassment.
The unceasing bullying reflects the challenge facing campuses, even those run by well-meaning adults. Fischer’s walls feature images and quotes from a panoply of civil-rights leaders, from Filipino founders of the United Farm Workers Union, to Pakistani girls’ advocate Malala Yousafzai to author and activist Maya Angelou. Administrators have spent hours investigating, counselling and discussing standards of behaviour.
Yet Berta, who grew up in East San Jose, now feels so insecure that her husband, also a Fischer teacher, must escort her to class every morning.
Throughout the country, harassment of Muslims, South Asians and Middle Easterners reportedly has been on the rise since the nation’s presidential campaign. Educators and civil rights-advocates say young people take their cue from a president who has been quick to deride critics, ridicule opponents and blame Muslims and immigrants.
Berta, 23, has taught for five years — she graduated from college at age 18 — but the harassment didn’t start until January. The White House example “creates a lot of chaos that is unnecessary,” said Fischer Principal Imee Almazan, “when you have a leader of the country who is saying what he is saying.”
Students have kicked Berta’s classroom door and yelled “shoot her,” labelled her a terrorist, accused her of working with ISIS and shouted to others that she was going to “kill us all.” Almazan said that two other victims, who no longer work at Fischer, confirmed they also had been bullied but had not reported it at the time.
In response, Fischer has held assemblies on bullying, workshops on stereotypes and misconceptions about Muslims, and exercises in character-building. The school plans to train teachers next week in an interactive curriculum offered by the Islamic Network Group.
But the school also has lagged in responding to incidents.
Berta was incensed that after an October 2 incident — when she heard banging on her door and windows and someone yelled “shoot her” — one student was given lunch detention, then 10 days later another was suspended for two days. The incident was reported to police and the vice principal spent more than a day investigating, Almazan said.
“Students will get lunch detention for wearing coloured shirts or not wearing their lanyard,” Berta said. “To put saying ‘shoot her’ in the same category as a dress code violation didn’t make any sense to me.”
As for the delay in dealing with harassers, Almazan said investigation takes time. After the spring incidents, the staff decided to craft some lesson plans to promote tolerance, but had to hold off because of state testing. In October, some response lagged because top Alum Rock district administrators were attending a labour-negotiations training in Massachusetts.
But delayed response is not considered best practice in dealing with bullying.
“If a kid doesn’t get pulled out immediately for egregious behaviour, word gets out fast,” said Randy Barber, a Fischer music teacher and union representative.
He blames large class sizes, up to 37 students in some cases, that allows behaviour to get out of hand. “You literally don’t have a ratio of enough grownups to kids to keep a steady handle” on campus, Barber said.
Almazan said she’s been working on improving school culture. But that, she said, takes time.
Establishing a norm that doesn’t tolerate harassment is key, said Anne Ehresman, executive director of Project Cornerstone, a YMCA programme that helps support students to live healthily and behave responsibly. With effective training, kids reinforce the culture and don’t remain bystanders to bullying.
This month, a student across the quad repeatedly gestured as if he were shooting a gun at Berta. In response, the district transferred him to another school and notified police, but somehow any follow-up fell through.
Berta has filed a grievance and a formal complaint against the district.
“I’m tired of the lip service. You can’t keep telling people that you care and want to stop hate,” Berta said, “and yet you don’t follow through with actions.”
She has turned down district offers to transfer her to another school.
“That’s not solving the problem,” she said. “I feel personally responsible so that this doesn’t happen to anyone else. No one should have to experience this. It’s been terrible to go through, the level of anxiety I get walking onto campus.”