Sikh Students Speak Out: “We Want Safe Schools Now!”

By Julianne Hing Jul 08, 2009

I’m both excited and a little disheartened to share the latest news from the Sikh Coalition‘s New York office. The community org released a new report with findings that show that one year into a 2008 resolution announced by New York City Mayor Bloomberg and New York Chancellor Schools Joel Klein meant to curb mounting bias-based harassment in schools, the Department of Education was in fact doing very little to protect students. From the report:

26% of students surveyed report that they have experienced bias-based harassment in their schools. Only 24% of students were aware that they could report harassment they experienced (by emailing 63% of people who were targeted with harassment felt that it was because of their race or ethnicity.

But last week, dozens of Sikh kids and community members piled into a bus from Queens to Manhattan to go to NYC’s Department of Education’s headquarters and demand that the city fully enforce the regulation it so proudly passed last year. It was a raucous, vibrant show of force. Students in elementary, middle and high school spoke out, supported each other and kept the crowd going with chants like, "DOE, we’re not fools! Stop the hate in our schools!" Most of these kids have been politicized because they’ve become targets of or witnesses to bullying in their schools. But they look like they’re on a class field trip, smiling and cheering, standing strong. I wonder if they realize how fearless they are. ColorLines reported on the disturbing pattern of bias-based bullying taking place in New York Schools earlier this year.

In 2008, a spate of incidents aimed at Sikh students across the city made headlines after they turned violent. Sixty-five percent of Sikh students in Queens, New York, experience some kind of racial intimidation or bullying, ranging from verbal assaults to physical violence, according to a study released by the Sikh Coalition in 2007.

The original ColorLines piece ended with cautious optimism. When Sonny Singh, a community organizer with the Sikh Coalition, and I spoke then, he worried that the regulation had too many loopholes, that the language of the regulation, while well-meaning, was also toothless in some areas. Turns out he was right. Gurnam Singh, who was in Manhattan for the first time in his life, who spoke in front of television cameras and addressed the bullying he faces on a regular basis in schools, had this to say:

Hey I’m Gurnam Singh. I’m 13 and I have just finished the 7th grade at M.S. 72 in Queens. Before I begin I want to ask you one question: Have you ever been harassed by someone? I have experienced harassment from the day I started at M.S. 72 because I’m a different religion than others. I’m a Sikh!! Some of the problems I have experienced are: 1. Three months ago a student came up to me and said "Ima knock you down and trim your turban." I felt extremely scared and needed help from other people, which I never got. 2. Three weeks ago this one girl cut me with a hairclip. When I told my teacher about it, she absolutely ignored me. I felt like no one cared about what I said. Two days later, I needed some lead for my lead pencil so I asked people around my class for some. When I asked [another classmate], she said, " Leave me alone, I’m going to slap that turban off your head." Harassment like this does not only happen to me, it happens to other Sikh students all the time. I found this out when I was helping out with the surveys and talking to other Sikh students about what they go through. I want you to know that this bullying is a humongous problem for Sikh students. I want you to know that one day it might happen to you, whether you are Sikh or not. I would love it if the DOE would listen to people like me more often instead of ignoring me. I got one more thing to say: When I go to school, I want to feel safe and protected. All I want is peace.

We’ve got activists in the making, young voices demanding to be heard. Students deserve a safe place for learning and growing. And these young people are going to keep fighting till they get it. Check out the Sikh Coalition’s Facebook page for more photos, video and updates.