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Muslim students find hostility, curiosity in their schools after San Bernardino

Six days after the mass shooting that left 14 people dead in San Bernardino, 14-year-old Hassan Messelmani walked out of his auto shop class at Claremont High School as his teacher talked to another adult visiting the class. 

“As I go outside he calls me and he tells me, 'come back inside' in a very loud voice, so as I walk back in to my desk, as I’m walking to my desk, he tells me, 'quit acting like a terrorist and sit down,'” he said.

He couldn’t believe it. The teacher, Messelmani said, then turned to the visiting adult and said, “'this kid right here wants to go to Florida and become a pilot’ in a [sarcastic] way, and he was laughing,” the ninth grader said.

Messelmani is one of five families who have filed complaints of harassment at school with the Greater Los Angeles Area Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations since the San Bernardino shooting. Advocates say that they've seen an uptick in anti-Muslim bullying in schools since the shooting spree, while other Muslim students report that their schools and classmates have been supportive and even more curious about their religion. 

“There’s a lot of fear as a result of it and that’s manifesting in a lot of different ways, including hate crimes, hate speech," said Fatima Dadabhoy, an attorney with the Greater Los Angeles Area Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Where are these incidents taking place? One of the places is at schools."

Since the San Bernardino shootings, her office has received five complaints related to the harassment of Muslim students. They’ve come in from Arcadia, Hawthorne, Riverside, and Upland, where the Messelmani family lives.

Messelmani's mother, Samira Elzayat, says that the school's principal told her he'd investigate the incident. Since then, her son has spent his auto shop period sitting in the school's office rather than in class. 

“Why would I want to be in a classroom with a teacher that is making fun of me what I want to be when I’m older and my race?” Messelmani said.

The whole family has talked about the incident. Sixteen-year-old sister Nadine Messelmani gets worked up when she thinks about what the teacher said to her little brother.

“I wanted to go to the classroom and yell at him, you know, 'my brother is just as much an American citizen as you are,'” she said.

All five children and their mother were born and raised in Dearborn, Mich. Hassan's father, Mohamad Messelmani, was born and raised in Lebanon. They are devout Muslims who celebrate Christmas as an American holiday by decorating the inside and outside of their house and organizing parties.

In an email, the school’s principal says the incident was handled according to school district policies but didn’t give details.

“This incident was brought to my attention and I investigated the matter immediately,” Claremont High School principal Brett O’Connor said in an email. “I have handled the matter according to our District’s internal policies. Because this is a personnel issue, I am unable to comment any further.”

Hassan’s mother isn’t satisfied with how the school has handled the incident. She doesn’t want the teacher fired, she said, she just wants him to know how hurtful his words were.

“Because we’re thinking our children are going to the school as if they’re going to their family. The teachers are their parents,” she said.

She filed a complaint with the the Council on American-Islamic Relations. And she’s thinking about filing a California Department of Education uniform harassment complaint.

Fifteen-year-old Jinan Al-Marayati had a much different experience. She said she felt support from her classmates at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy in La Cañada.

"To be honest, a lot of friends were actually very supportive and telling me why they never assumed that I would be a terrorist or any Muslim, as a matter of fact," she said.

Her family is devout Muslim and she attended an all-Muslim elementary school. Neither she nor her mother wear a hijab. Her parents are advocates in the Southern California Muslim community.

A few days after the San Bernardino shootings, Al-Marayati said, her religion class teacher opened up a discussion about Islam and the Koran. Most of the students looked to Jinan for answers.

"At first it was very overwhelming because I felt like I was representing the whole Muslim community, and that’s a lot to have on your back,"  she said. "But eventually I thought of it as more of my responsibility in order to break stereotypes in what people usually think of American Muslims."

The San Bernardino shootings have shown educators how little they know about Muslims, Vicki Tamoush said. She’s trying to change that. She helps run a teacher workshop in the fall about the Arab and Muslim world.

“I think the way for teachers to present these issues and also to deal with their own Muslim students is to erase their own prejudices, to come to a workshop where they can ask all these difficult questions, why do you veil, what do you say when you pray,” she said.

For every Muslim student with a positive experience at school, Tamoush said, 20 are bullied because of their religion. She’s hopes to hold a teacher workshop in the spring and expand it to Orange County.