September 21, 2001 Richard Mills, Commissioner New York State Education Department 89 Washington Avenue Albany, NY 12234 BY FAX (518-473-4909) AND MAIL Dear Commissioner Mills: As you are aware, in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, there have been numerous reports of bias attacks and harassment throughout the state and nation. Many Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Arab American, and South Asian American children are afraid to go to school, for fear that they will be subject to bias threats, harassment or violence. We understand that SED has sent advisories to schools regarding how to handle children’s reactions to this crisis. We would encourage the department to consider sending additional alerts specifically addressing measures that schools might take to prevent bias incidents and provide a safe and inclusive learning environment for all children. Such actions can help ensure that New York’s schools are beacons of diversity, tolerance and inclusion, welcoming all the state’s children. We would propose that the following suggestions be made to local school systems. These track a series of suggestions the NYCLU has made to the New York City school system.
  • Send a letter home with every student advising that the schools foster diversity and inclusion and that bias harassment, threats and violence will not be tolerated. The letter might also advise students and parents of whom they can call at their individual schools and at the central administration should an incident occur, as well as any safety precautions that could be taken.
  • Send a letter to each faculty and staff member alerting them to how bias incidents are to be reported. The letter might also make clear the school system’s policy against bias incidents directed at staff as well as students and advise where bias harassment, threats and violence directed at staff can be reported.
  • Establish a reporting system for bias incidents at each school and with the central administration.
  • Offer suggestions for morning announcements that schools could tailor to their individual needs.
  • Develop curriculum, tailored to individual schools’ needs, to foster multicultural understanding and dispel prejudices concerning the Islamic, Sikh and Hindu faiths as well as the myriad cultures of the Middle East and South Asia.
  • Form specially trained response teams to conduct workshops where incidents occur, conduct follow-up with victims of bias incidents, and collaborate with local districts on training of faculty and staff. Many teachers and staff are likely unfamiliar with new curriculum and may need ongoing resources to address questions and concerns.
  • Encourage outreach efforts by individual schools to local religious and secular groups to tailor anti-bias efforts to the communities they serve. Local religious and community leaders might participate in discussions with students and staff to dispel prejudice. In addition, the PTAs can be vital links to ensuring that a message of inclusion, tolerance and safety is reinforced in the home. Finally, given that the journey to and from school is now fraught with fear for many children, especially Muslim girls identifiable by their hijab, Hindu girls who wear the bindi on their foreheads, and male Sikh students identifiable by their turbans, schools might coordinate voluntary escort systems, if needed, with the PTA and community groups.
We would be happy to discuss any of these proposals with you. Please let us know how you are proceeding. Sincerely, Donna Lieberman Interim Executive Director Rebekah Diller Staff Attorney