On his way home from school, Sanjeet had stopped by a local deli to grab a bite to eat when some boys came from behind and pulled off his dastaar. New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who was a teacher at the time, saw the incident and tried unsuccessfully to stop the perpetrators.
“I loved Sanjeet,” he told SikhNN. “He was the kind of kid who liked to please teachers.”
Dromm was a teacher in Sanjeet’s school, more than 10 years ago, before 9/11. Back then, Sikh kids were teased just because they were different, he said. With a large population of Latinos, the city was experiencing an influx of South Asian immigrants. Sikh kids became targets of bias. It’s even worse now with the additional bias of turbans being mistakenly identified with the 9/11 perpetrators.
Dromm knew the Latino students who attacked Sanjeet. He reported them to the principal the next day. Their parents were brought in and the offenders were suspended.
“When that child had his turban pulled off, there was nothing to say that this was wrong,” said Dromm. One of the misguided thoughts is why not just take the turban off. They don’t understand that it is part of the religion.
“I recall wishing that we had a curriculum or reference to use as a teacher of how to deal with that.” Today, as councilman, it is still his dream.
Dromm’s district includes Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst, LeFrak City, Corona, Rego Park, and Woodside, with a large population of Sikhs. He also is a member of the council’s education committee, which held a hearing last month to evaluate the New York City Department of Education’s efforts to combat bullying.
The June 13 hearing focused in part on the impact of its ‘Respect for All’ annual diversity training program and curriculum. Respect for All is part of the ‘Chancellor’s Regulation,’ a program established by the education department in 2008 to define, track, and prevent bias-based harassment in the city’s 1,200 public schools. The regulation was the result of a grassroots campaign spearheaded by the Sikh Coalition, and other minority groups, after a number of violent incidents reported against Sikh students.
Since its implementation, the coalition’s assessment shows minimal progress in bullying prevention. This is because the program is not mandatory, said Amardeep Singh, the coalition’s programs director. “It is made available in every school to use as they see fit.”
According to the coalition’s 2010 report, only 14 percent of teachers and staff surveyed said that the Chancellor’s Regulation and the Respect for All program were “effective” or “very effective” in addressing bullying and bigotry in their schools. And although the two-day Respect for All training is available to all teachers, only about 30 percent said their school even offered the training.
Respect for All also includes a curriculum of 13 role-playing activities for teachers to use in their classes. Half of them focus on lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues, which is Dromm’s focus, and the rest are general in nature.
“We would love to see Sikh examples in the role play,” Amardeep Singh said. “It’s an outstanding request of the (education department). The curriculum would be much more stronger given our documentation of specific issues affecting Sikh kids. The rest is fine and is a good effort.”
“It is a great program,” said Ilana Ofgang, legal fellow with United Sikh, who testified at the hearing. “(But) it does not do enough on a regular basis in the daily curriculum.”
The education committee members recommended an awareness week at the beginning of the school year, but there is not enough of cultural sensitivity awareness in the curriculum for the rest of the school year, she told SikhNN. It also lacks in professional development for teachers and other staff members who are walking the halls or driving the school bus. Bullying often occurs outside the classrooms, but they are not equipped to handle it.
Ofgang testified that teachers lack religious and cultural sensitivity toward Sikh students who reported being bullied, and that Sikh students feel that teachers rarely follow-up on their reports of being bullied. The education department’s efforts to combat bullying have too often failed Sikh students who are bullied, she said in the news release.
Tejpreet Kaur, community organizer for the Sikh Coalition, also testified at the hearing that schools are not effectively protecting their students from harm and are taking too casual an approach in addressing bullying.
Tejpreet Kaur was not available for comment.
“Respect for All is punitive, not proactive,” Dromm added. “It must be mandated in every classroom and included in the curriculum throughout the year.”
The city council also resolved to support the passage of two federal acts, the Safe Schools Improvement Act and Student Non-Discrimination Act that would require direct congressional oversight and reporting requirements.
Although both Sikh advocacy groups also endorsed passage of the federal acts, which focus on basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, United Sikhs asked that they be inclusive of Sikhs.
“For any policy or anti-bullying legislation to be effective in safe-guarding Sikh youth, United Sikhs urged that it must include requirements for any data reporting to include categories for Sikhs or have generic categories where Sikhs can be identified so as to get accurate numbers on the impact that bullying is having on Sikh students,” according to its news release.