MURRAY — A nonprofit organization that assists refugees is urging Utah schools to adopt model policy to help prevent incidents of Muslim girls in Utah schools being harassed for wearing hijabs, or in one girl's case, forcibly removed by a fellow student.
Representatives of the Refugee Justice League said they searched the country for model policies on bullying, cyberbullying, hazing and retaliation. The best policy they found is that of the Davis County School District, said attorney Jim McConkie, a league founder, during a press conference Thursday.
With the help of former Salt Lake City School District Superintendent McKell Withers, a member of the Refugee Justice League's advisory board, the organization is recommending that school districts statewide adopt specific language "to further educate and protect students."
The language says, in part, that "school officials should make appropriate exemptions to dress codes and reasonably accommodate students who wear hairstyles, clothing, headwear, jewelry, cosmetics or other apparel as a personal expression of sincerely held religious beliefs."
The suggested policy also recommends that school officials "accommodate student requests not to wear certain gym clothes and/or uniforms that students regard, on a religious basis, as immodest."
Withers, who was also a top-level administrator in the Granite School District before becoming the Salt Lake City School District superintendent, is well acquainted with school superintendents across the state, so that should help open doors and minds to school boards revising policies to include language on religious attire, McConkie said.
"I hope that will take the edge off of it, like 'Well, here comes these attorneys.' He'll be able to open the door and we'll be able to assign our attorneys out to speak to teachers and students about religious clothing in general, religious rights and how important they are, just raise the sensitivity and level of understanding," McConkie said.
Maram Al-Shammari, 11, joined Withers and McConkie at the press conference. She said she her hijab was forcibly removed by "bullies" during recess at her Granite School District elementary school.
"It made me feel like they were taking away my privacy," said Maram, who is an Iraqi refugee.
"That's not acceptable."
The incident occurred two years ago when she was in fourth grade.
Now a sixth-grader, Maram explained that she made a deliberate choice to wear a head scarf because it is a symbol of modesty and privacy in her Muslim faith.
Ben Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District, said the incident was addressed by Mill Creek Elementary School administrators two years ago.
"In this particular case, it was not carried out by a group of students. It was carried out by one young boy. In this particular case it was not deemed to be any act of religious harassment despite the assertions of this group. This was a 9-year-old acting like a 9-year-old," Horsley said. The student is also a refugee, he said.
Not only did the school administer "appropriate correction and discipline with the student, more importantly, we actually pulled him aside and helped him understand why pulling this religious garb off this student's head was insensitive and culturally inappropriate," Horsley said.
"Policies are great and education is even better," he added.
Horsley said Granite officials believe the school district's policies are written to protect any student who faces harassment, bullying or targeting for any reason.
"When you start making lists, invariably somebody gets left off that list who needs protection," he said.
Horsley said he thinks the Refugee Justice League's goal is noble but he questions why this particular student's experience was held out as an example "because it is clearly not a case of religious harassment."