Mistaken Identities

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When Jagdeep Singh was in elementary school, another fourth-grade student attacked him on the school bus. "This guy was trying to stab me with a pencil because of my identity," he says.

Jagdeep never rode one more day on the bus. What he refers to as his "identity" — the fact that he is Sikh — had made him a target. In the seven years since, his mother has driven him to and from school.

Of course, he wasn't attacked because he is Sikh, per se. Because of Jagdeep's mini turban, the other boy thought he was "a Muslim terrorist," and even if he'd been an extraordinarily precocious nine-year-old, in this situation Jagdeep didn't have time to try to explain that his heritage is from India, not the Middle East, and that his turban is not cultural but religious. Or add that he had nothing to do with the 9/11 bombings, as neither did all those Muslim kids who were similarly tagged.

Today, Jagdeep, 17, is a junior at Cy Woods High School along with his brother Prabhjot, a 15-year-old sophomore. They have three older sisters, one of whom, Harmeet Kaur, works for Houston City Councilwoman Melissa Noriega and in her spare time is part of the local branch of the national Sikh Coalition, which is trying to educate more people about what a Sikh is and is not.

Effective September 1, the state of Texas signed into law House Bill 1942, a new anti-bullying law (one of the last states in the nation to do so, Texas had no formal requirement for districts to create bullying policies). Some school districts in the state already had anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies in place — but all scrambled to come up with or amend language to their behavior rules.

In many local districts, there are anti-bullying presentations given and posters lining hallways decrying bullying — all efforts to make students hesitate before they unload on someone. But according to Harmeet, a lot of kids who are bullied don't tell their parents or anyone else, no matter how many anonymous tiplines there are.

While Harmeet and her group are working hard to spread the anti-bullying message, they are calling for something more than just a set of tactics.

They want a teacher or parent to stand up in front of a classroom and tell all the kids what Sikhs are. They believe that with education, the hate and ignorance will fall away.

The Sikh religion, started 500 years ago in India, is the fifth-largest in the world. It promotes equality between the sexes and a peaceful existence. Adherents are not supposed to cut their hair, as a sign of respect for God, and men wear turbans to keep their hair clean as well as pin up their unshorn beards. Men and boys are supposed to take the last name Singh (meaning "lion"), and women and girls the surname Kaur ("princess"). To avoid confusion in America, some use these as their middle names.

The teasing, taunting and bullying come in because the boys look different with the mini turbans and get called Osama or Al Qaeda, and the girls aren't supposed to shave their legs or remove excess facial hair, which can make gym class and social life in general pretty tough for a teenager.

There are only half a million Sikhs in the United States, which, as Jagdeep and Prabhjot say, increases their difficulties by making them a minority among minorities. "Yes, there are African-Americans, there are Asians and Muslims, but there are more of them," Prabhjot says. "But there are only one, two, three Indians in a school who keep their hair. There are Sikhs who don't keep their hair and don't follow the religion fully."

"A lot of our friends actually had hair and had to cut it because a lot of people were bothering them and they were getting teased and didn't want to keep it," Jagdeep says.

What he doesn't add is that he's thought about becoming one of them. Harmeet says that her brother has asked several times that he be allowed to cut his hair and their father has even driven him to the barbershop, even though he and his wife are very traditional Sikhs.

In a separate conversation, Jagdeep confirms this.

"I was kind of an outcast. I looked different, and I didn't want to do that. I wanted to blend in with other people. I told my dad, 'Hey, I want to cut my hair' a bunch of times. People were making fun of me. I thought if I cut it, it would stop."

On September 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, was shot five times by a man looking for revenge for the 9/11 attacks.

The story made national news as Sikhs tried to define themselves and the media worked to relay the message. But in the years since, there have been other attacks and regular reports of Sikhs turned down for jobs because of how they look.

In March of this year, two older Sikh men taking an afternoon walk were shot in Elk Grove, California, a suburb of Sacramento. No arrests have been made, but police were treating it as a hate crime, thinking it is more than possible that this was another case of mistaken identity.

"I'm used to people calling me terrorist," says Prabhjot. "I'm used to it, but I don't appreciate it." Even though he and his brother think their high school, Cy Woods, is as good as anywhere in the area with its anti-bullying campaign, both say things get said away from teachers and even, sometimes, in front of them. Or even by them.

When he was in eighth grade, Prabhjot says, his science teacher became upset with him because he was talking with another student. "She said, 'PJ, be quiet or I'll rip that knot off your head.' She said it in a joking way; I'm not sure how she meant it. "

But when he came home that night and told his father, Surinder Singh was not amused. "He took the matter seriously and brought it to the principal," Prabhjot says. Both the teacher and principal apologized. "She said she didn't mean it in that way, but it's still offensive, and it was a mistake by her. I was surprised it was a teacher saying this; you would think a teacher would know better," says Prabhjot. "But she was like any other classmate."

The U.S. Department of Education recently released a study of bullying policies throughout the country in which it refers to a National Center for Education Statistics report that says "39 percent of middle school administrators and 20 percent of administrators at the elementary and high school level reported that bullying took place on a daily or weekly basis."

According to NCES data focusing on kids ages 12-18, "Twenty-one percent of those surveyed reported that they had been made fun of by their peers, 18 percent had been the subject of rumors, 11 percent had been pushed, shoved, tripped or spit on and 6 percent had been threatened."

The study said that while people previously accepted bullying as a normal experience that most children outgrew, "researchers now link bullying to a broad range of long-term harms for both students who bully and students who are bullied."

While bullying victims may have trouble making friends, suffer from loneliness and be at greater risk of depression and suicide, it turns out the bullies themselves tend to have "higher substance abuse rates, poorer social skills, greater mental health problems and exhibit increased aggressive-impulsive behaviors as adults, " the report said.

Oh, and then there's the line about how unchecked youthful bullies usually grow up to be someone you don't want to work with or be married to.

Deborah Stewart, assistant superintendent for student services at Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, says that when they talk to a bully, they try to find the root of the problem. "We have to address that not just as a punitive consequence, but we try to find out why the behavior occurs. What's going on at home? Why do you think you have to treat another student that way?"

That doesn't mean, Stewart says, that the district tolerates bullying. Stewart, who has spent 20 years working with discipline and behavior initiatives, says she's heard all the comments about teasing being a normal rite of passage.

"What we say to them is this: We've always addressed bullying because we've always addressed inappropriate behavior whether it was taunting, teasing, kicking or spitting. We're not going to say: 'Boys will be boys; girls will be mean.'

"Girls may be mean, but here in Cy-Fair we're going to address it. Here in Cy-Fair, it is not going to be tolerated. You can have those old adages, but here in Cy-Fair you're going to add the 'but.' Here in Cy-Fair, Boys will be boys, but."

Sometimes efforts to combat bullying in the schools get pushed aside by other priorities, says Susan Shaw, associate regional director for education with the Houston branch of the Anti-Defamation League, which has for years been an area leader in promoting understanding of differences and safety in schools.

"The social, emotional stuff sometimes gets pushed to the back because of an emphasis on academics. I've heard a handful of times educators say, 'We really have to focus on academics,'" Shaw says. But she points out that a lot of anti-bullying efforts don't have to take up a lot of time.

"One of our training programs is called 'Becoming an Ally.' We talk about the little things you can do. 'Can I walk to class with you? Do you want to sit with me in the cafeteria?'"

Ravneet Singh (not his real name) is a middle-schooler in Cy-Fair who's on the debate team and hopes to be a lawyer one day. He assesses his situation in a manner both analytical and quietly heartbreaking for a 13-year-old.

"It's all right," he says, when asked about how others treat him at school. "As you get older, you kind of establish your group of friends, like who will have your back."

Ravneet's family moved to the Cy-Fair district from Katy precisely because his mother was seeking safety in numbers for her son. "In Katy there were only two Sikh boys in the school. So we moved here. In this subdivision there's three families here. So if he's going to ride the bus, there are at least two of them or at least three of them on the bus," she says.

In elementary school, other kids were touching his head all the time without his permission, Ravneet says. He and Jagdeep and Prabhjot all agree that the worst bullying usually goes on in the early grades, and things seem to get better as everyone gets older. Ravneet is holding out for high school, and Jagdeep and Prabhjot think things will be better in college.

Jagbir Kaur, no relation to the other families, is a tenth- and eleventh-grade science teacher at Cy Lake High School. "When you're older, you can advocate for yourself," she says. Younger children don't know how to explain themselves as well, she says. The mother of two sons — her second was just born days ago — says she and her husband hope to instill in their children a strong sense of self and knowledge of their religion as their best defense against bullies.

Teacher Jagbir is probably one of the best arguments that "education" is needed just as much as learning strategies in how to deal with bullies.

Although the Sikh faith doesn't require it of women, Jagbir wears a turban because it "reminds me of who I am," and is an easy starting point in the getting-to-know-you sessions in the first day of class. As her students tell her about themselves and their backgrounds, she tells them about herself. "It's easy for people to assume we're Muslim; that's just a clarification issue."

She says some Sikh boys seek her out at the school. "People do call them Osama or say, 'Go back where you came from.' I say, 'Let's go talk to your counselor.'"

Her husband, Harpal Singh, says he's been called all the names, but he just usually smiles and moves on. "Usually there's nothing to say because they're not in a position to listen." More education would make a huge difference, he says. The Sikh Coalition is doing more and more, but school is the best place to educate people, he says. "That's where everyone sits with a mind-set of learning."

Jagdeep and Prabhjot's father Surinder Singh shakes his head talking about the difficulties of trying to explain to someone that Sikhism is very different from Islam.

"I was trying to converse with someone the other day. I said, 'We are not Muslim. We belong to the Sikh religion.' His response: 'If you're not Muslim, you're their cousin.'"

Eighth-grader Ravneet's mom used to bring leaflets explaining the Sikh religion to the teachers on the first day of class in elementary school. But with all the teachers in a middle school day, she gave that up. Ravneet brought in a CD about Sikhism to a middle school teacher, but it's been shown to only a few kids, he says.

None of them are doing this to proselytize; Sikhism doesn't believe in going after converts; they just want to be understood.

Prabhjot is very proud of a cousin living in Dallas who was being teased without end in elementary school. His mother took him to school and made him take off the turban, explaining to the class: "'It's just hair. It's not a ball. It's just hair tied to his head.' Everybody stopped teasing after that because he had the guts to do that. It was a pretty neat thing that he did. So since then, I've been thinking 'education.'"

All resent the fact that Sikhs get only a sentence or two in most high school textbooks and nothing at all in the lower grades. All put an incredible amount of faith in education and the ability of teachers to turn things around.

What a gigantic opportunity, what an enormous responsibility, this presents for educators.

Prabhjot, whose hair comes to his hips and takes more than an hour to clean, says he plans to stay with the tenets of his religion. "If we keep our hair, it is a challenge for us. It is only going to make us stronger. It shows that we are determined."

When Surinder Singh first came to the United States in 1985, the only job he could get was in a pizza place, and he had to cut his hair. He hasn't made that accommodation since and now owns a small machine shop.

He wants the best for his children and is obviously worried about his son Jagdeep's unhappiness. Harmeet says Jagdeep doesn't like to be seen in public with his turban, and that he'll sit in the car at the mall rather than go inside.

"He's having this battle with himself," Harmeet says. "My dad said, 'If this is really getting in the way of you having a social life and a good education, we'll cut it.' He's taken him a few times to the barbershop, and he'll be like, 'No, dad, let me think about it.'"

So far Jagdeep hasn't had his hair cut. "I tell them to keep focusing on education and get a higher degree. Then the conflicts inside you will be wiped out," Surinder says hopefully. "But still you know it is a long journey. One day they'll go to college. I don't know what they'll do."


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