Washington, DC – The United States Department of Justice, in a recent landmark settlement agreement with DeKalb County School District in Atlanta, Georgia, moved to resolve the department’s investigation into allegations of religious and national origin harassment of a Sikh middle school student. The complaint, filed with the department by the New York-based Sikh Coalition, alleged that the student had been repeatedly targeted with verbal and physical harassment because of his Sikh faith.
“I want other students, who may have been bullied like me, to always have hope and to know that it’s never too late to speak up,” the Sikh middle-schooler was quoted as saying by the Sikh Coalition. The student’s identity is being withheld because he is a minor.
Raising concerns that the school district had not investigated witness statements that the student had been called a “terrorist” and that there was a history of fellow students targeting him because of his turban, the Justice Department noted that the district had failed to respond promptly and appropriately to the Sikh Coalition’s allegations of harassment. These incidents occurred both at school and on the school bus.
The department also found that the disciplinary measures taken by the district had not been effective in ending the harassment, and that the student feared continued harassment.
The settlement agreement, which will be in effect until the end of the 2014-2015 school year, requires the district to: work with a consultant to develop and implement anti-harassment training at the student’s middle and high school; immediately implement a safety plan to ensure that the student is safe at school and, should incidents of harassment occur, that the district responds quickly and effectively; and meet with the student, his family, and administrators from his middle school and the high school where he will enroll, to identify key school personnel who can support the student should any future incidents of harassment occur.
The department has opened a separate and ongoing inquiry into whether the district’s anti-harassment policies meet federal standards, whether its policies are consistently implemented, and whether employees are adequately trained to implement those policies.
“Students of all faiths must be protected from harassment and other forms of discrimination,” said Jocelyn Samuels, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. US Attorney Sally Quillian Yates added, “Every student should be able to attend school without fear of being harassed and bullied because of his skin color or religious beliefs.”
Citing the finding by the US Commission on Civil Rights that rates of bullying against Sikh children “range from roughly half to over three-quarters,” the Sikh Coalition noted that its bullying reports confirm that Sikh students suffer high rates of bias-based bullying and harassment at schools nationwide.
Gurjot Kaur, Staff Attorney at the Sikh Coalition, commended the Department of Justice, adding, “Our schools should be places where children quench their intellectual curiosity, not places where they endure hatred and fear. Many students and parents do not realize that bullying can often be a legal problem, especially when a school district fails to take appropriate action.”
Kaur added, “This settlement sends a clear message to schools nationwide that we will no longer tolerate inadequate measures to address school bullying.”