Seattle Schools Face Backlash for Advising Muslim Students to Eat During Ramadan

Lilly Fowler, Crosscut, March 13, 2019

The social-media firestorm over the Seattle School District’s treatment of Ramadan, one of Islam’s holiest holidays, began almost immediately.

The public schools in Seattle need “to figure this out if it is to be truly equitable,” wrote one commentator on Facebook.

“This is 100 percent the same thing as making children take their test on Christmas or Easter. It would never happen,” wrote another.

Social-media users would soon start tagging the Council on American-Islamic Relations, asking the Muslim civil-rights organization to raise the alarm about an email sent on Monday by Katie May, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Elementary.

“Dear TM Family Member,” the email began before explaining two kinds of student testing on the schedule for the spring. “We realize that this year, a portion of the state testing window coincides with the observance of Ramadan.”

Then, according to many Muslims and non-Muslims alike, came the troubling part.

The email asked Muslim families observing Ramadan, a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset to commemorate the revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, to consider the following: “Allow your child to eat, or participate in partial-day fasting, on testing days.”

Masih Fouladi, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Washington, called the email “tone deaf.”

This is, Fouladi said, the school district “telling Muslim parents how to practice their faith.”

Fouladi said that although Muslims typically begin fasting around puberty, some choose to start earlier. The decision of exactly when to begin fasting should be left up to individual families — not the school district, Fouladi said.

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The other, drafted by an internal team including a member who observes Ramadan, explained that some students may fast during the holiday and may have an easier time taking any necessary tests earlier rather than later. It also explained school leaders could “make a reasonable attempt” to honor requests to have testing occur before the start of Ramadan.

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The email, Robinson said, wasn’t meant to get into details about what options Muslim students might have.

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“This is a consistent issue with the Seattle public school system,” Fouladi said.

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“If they are committed to making education equally accessible to all, then they need to be committed to honoring diverse religious practices in the community,” Fouladi said. “We’re hoping they acknowledge the mistake that they made and that they meet with communities of faith to see how they can do better going forward.”

Miri Cypers, director of the Anti-Defamation League for the Pacific Northwest, said in an email: “To create welcoming and respectful school environments for students of all faith backgrounds, diligent efforts should be made to accommodate religious observance so that students are not forced to choose between their religious observance and their academic responsibilities.”

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The Washington chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations has also posted a petition, demanding that the school district respect religious observances and retract what it referred to as an “insensitive email.”

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Cecilia Kingman, a minister at Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church and a parent of twins at Thurgood Marshall Elementary, said that “as a person of faith I was pained by it,” referring to the email.

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Rabbi David Basior, another parent at Thurgood Marshall, echoed those sentiments, noting that “the entire district calendar needs re-evaluation with regard to cultural, religious” traditions beyond Christianity.

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If signed into law, a state Senate bill aimed at ensuring religious accommodations for postsecondary students will help solve some of the issues for college students.

Younger students, however, will continue to have to rely on the region’s school districts to properly recognize their faith.

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