WASHINGTON – The note said the World Trade Center attacks would be avenged in a massacre of Muslims at a California public high school, with the names of five students listed beneath. They were sent home for their safety.
A Pakistan native in another California high school reported that a classmate told her, "You look like a terrorist."
In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Arab-American and Islamic groups have reported hundreds of cases of harassment, intimidation and violence, including a few at schools. While no violence against Arab and Muslim students has been reported, schools across the country are reporting frightened families and are struggling to assure parents they'll protect children, while teaching classmates about tolerance.
The incidents have prompted Education Secretary Rod Paige to send a rare "dear colleague" letter to educators, urging that classroom discussions and assemblies honoring victims not inadvertently "foster the targeting of Arab-American students for harassment or blame."
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, which claimed more than 5,000 lives, reports of hate crimes and harassment against Arab-Americans have flooded advocates' offices. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee this week said it had compiled a list of more than 200 incidents. The Council of American-Islamic Relations reported more than 400, including yelling, spitting, extensive vandalism and assaults.
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee spokesman Hussein Ibish said fear of reprisal has scared many parents into temporarily keeping their children home from both public and private schools.
Muslim private schools across the country canceled classes for a few days last week. In other schools, such as the Muslim Educational Trust School in Portland, Ore., parents were asked to walk the grounds during school hours, keeping an eye out for retaliation.
"It's a tough time for the whole community at large," said Wajdi Said, the trust's executive director. "We've really felt a sadness and a sorrow."
In a Palmdale, Calif., public high school, several students stayed home after they were named in a list saying the World Trade Center attacks would be avenged with a Tuesday "massacre," according to one of those on the list.
"I was just shocked and scared," said Abdul Bachmid, 15, who saw the list outside the school Monday and reported it to school officials. He and brother Hanif, 18, were two of three Muslim students named.
"Our religion, they don't allow killing like that," Hanif said of the attacks. "They consider it a huge sin."
Their mother, Aisha Attamimi, called the list "sickening."
"Even now, I cannot believe it," she said. "I think this is the most peaceful country in the world."
The family hails from Indonesia and has lived in the United States for 11 years. Until this week, Attamimi said, they had never experienced discrimination or harassment.
Police are investigating the incident. Principal Michael Vierra said he sent notices to students and staff discouraging them from laying the blame for the attacks on any ethnic group.
Nan Horstman, principal of Delta Center Elementary School in Grand Ledge, Mich., said conversations taking place in classrooms this week sound similar to those about bullying, which got widespread attention after school shootings last spring.
Horstman said she goes out of her way to discipline students caught harassing schoolmates over religion or ethnicity.
"I put on a big show," she said. "I pound the desk and let them know in no uncertain terms that, as long as they're here, they will not behave in that way."
Still, she said, one Saudi family kept their children home last week.
Ibish said mistreatment of Arab-American students isn't surprising, given what he called an unrelenting negative stereotyping in American television and movies.
"American kids have never been exposed to positive, let alone neutral, images of Arab-Americans," he said.
Most Americans deserve credit for rising above stereotypes, he said, but added that the aftermath of the attacks won't be easy.
"It's going to be tough for our community," Ibish said. "We know that, in spite of the support we're receiving."