Hamilton

'We're called terrorists:' HWDSB anti-bullying session hears from Muslim community

Hamilton's Muslim community visited the Mountain Mosque on Monday evening to share their stories about bullying to a review panel created by Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.

'A lot of boys were saying 'we're called terrorists, we're the ones who caused 9/11'

Yommna Rakem, a grade four student at Tiffany Hills Elementary School, cried when she told the crowd at the bullying review session a boy at school called her "deaf" because she wears hearing aids. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Ten-year-old Abdullah Saeed, a Grade 5 student at Janet Lee Elementary School, had a message for the lone panel member in attendance at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board's public bullying review session.

"They say I'm Muslim and I might do something bad, I might bring a bomb to school," the child said.

At the Mountain Mosque on Monday evening stories of targeted violence, name-calling and headscarves being torn off heads dominated the session intended for the local Muslim community.

Tears filled children's eyes and anger burst out of parents as they recalled the insults hurled at their children in local schools for their names, their ethnicity and practicing their religion.

"The schools can put at least a bit more [effort]," Saeed said.

Marwah Weera, a Grade 3 student at Bellmoore Elementary School, told the group a boy told her she's "smelly" while 14-year-old Amera Abdusalam and others said friends have had their hijabs pulled off their heads and written on.

Others echoed the sombre stories as the crowd of roughly 90 people sat in the place of worship Monday evening. 

Students from Hamilton's Muslim community say they've had their headscarves ripped off, been beaten up and called "terrorists" at school, with little support from school faculty within HWDSB. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)
Yommna Rakem, a grade four student at Tiffany Hills Elementary School, cried when she told the crowd at the bullying review session a boy at school called her "deaf" because she wears hearing aids. (Bobby Hristova/CBC) (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

HWDSB created 20 consultation sessions after the death of Devan Selvey, a 14-year-old who was fatally stabbed behind Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School.

Each session features a panel of community members and a consulting firm who listen to the concerns.

After a "chaotic" first meeting, Shawn McKillop, the school board's manager of communications, said the panel cut down on presentation time to include more time to listen.

'We're called terrorists, we're the ones who caused 9/11'

After an hour-long meal at 6 p.m., students and parents shared their experiences for 15 minutes before a half-hour prayer and equally long presentation from Farhanna Khan, a supply teacher who collected community responses for roughly two weeks.

"A lot of boys were saying 'we're called terrorists, we're the ones who caused 9/11,'" she told CBC News.

"One child said what he learned to do, because no one was responding, was he hit back. And when he hit back, the kids stopped bullying him, which is sad … that's the only answer they have that works."

Farhanna Khan, a supply teacher who collected community responses for roughly two weeks comforted Kamilia Karayyim, who teared up talking about what she heard about bullies targeting Muslim students in Hamilton schools. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Other parents say their children are too afraid to speak up and are avoiding school to escape their daily torment.

The consultation was also set to include group brainstorming sessions which were cancelled due to time-constraints after more parents and children shared their experiences toward the end of the evening.

Report won't 'sit on a shelf'

The list of recommendations from the community to HWDSB included:

  • Counselling for school bullies and their targets.

  • More Muslim staff members and representation within schools.

  • Providing a safe space for prayers.

  • More celebrations of Muslim days of significance.

  • Teaching that includes a Muslim perspective.

The event only featured one of the three panel members, Dr. Gary Warner, a former McMaster professor and administrator, even though they're supposed to have two members minimum (one member is away while another is injured).

He told CBC News the report will revolve around prevention, intervention, reporting and responding. 

Dr. Gary Warner, a member of the bullying review panel, says he knows the strategy to thwart bullying is a long-term plan, but believes there are some measures HWDSB can implement now. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Based on the sessions so far, Warner said the public wants more responsiveness from the board and there is a "real problem."

"There are not adequate processes in place to prevent the bullying from happening on the scale that it does," he said.

"You really need to have a culture in place where everyone feels responsible for maintaining healthy relationships among people."

The panel is set to come up with recommendations in May — and Warner promises it "won't just sit on a shelf."

"I think I can speak for all three of [the panel members] that there's no way we would put forward recommendations that didn't' have some monetary and accountability processes and timelines in place, with some kind of internal and independent, external evaluation on the process being made."

"My sense is to turn the ship around to that place where everyone is responsible and the culture of relationship building is pervasive, that's a long-term process. However, in the short-term there are concrete things that have to be done to move us in that direction."

Kids and an organizer hold up anti-bullying signs made by children as parents and students voiced their concerns about how Muslim students are targets for bullies in Hamilton schools. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bobby Hristova is a reporter for CBC News in Hamilton. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.

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