As Renton High School seniors walked across the graduation stage on Wednesday, fellow graduate Sawda Mohamed stayed home with her family.
The 18-year-old had purchased her cap and gown, but earlier in the school year decided to skip the ceremony. Despite her mother’s protest, Mohamed described her choice as a fitting end to years of frustration she experienced in a school system she felt had little respect for her Muslim faith.
“Honestly, because everything I’ve dealt with in the past, just let it be,” Mohamed said earlier this week. “I bought the cap and gown for memories of the hard work and everything I accomplished, but it’s just not worth it at this point.”
This year, the most stressful time of the school year coincided with the holiest time for Mohamed: Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset for a month in order to focus on spiritual growth, family and charity.
It’s also when students faced the pressure of finals that can keep them advancing to the next grade or graduation, in addition to other once-in-a-lifetime events such as prom and senior-award banquets. As King County’s Muslim student population grows, faculty and student efforts to increase accommodation for the annual holiday and other religious activities such as prayer have gained traction.
Across Washington, accommodations aren’t just being made for Muslim students. In 2015, the state widened its window for required student testing to about three months, offering districts some flexibility to consider a long list of religious holidays and events in their planning.
The Mercer Island School District, for example, changed the date of its first day of kindergarten so Jewish students didn’t have to start on their faith’s holy day of Rosh Hashana. Earlier this year, when the Kent School District learned that its graduation venue’s security standards didn’t allow members of the Sikh community to enter carrying kirpans, religious articles that resemble knives, district officials negotiated an exception with the venue.
Still, Mohamed and several students and parents interviewed for this story reported running into resistance to simple requests from their schools such as being excused from class for a few minutes to perform their prayers or rescheduling exams to avoid having to take them on empty stomachs during Ramadan.
Ramadan in school
Ramadan presents a challenge not only for the fasting students, but for the schools trying to make adjustments for them.
“We’re not asking schools to move their graduations to July. That would be ridiculous,” said Regina Elmi, a Renton mother and co-founder of the recently launched Somali Parents Education Board. “We’d just like to see some steps to let our community know that they’re really trying to figure this out.”
According to the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, Friday is the start of Eid al-Fitr, the three-day holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. The month moves back on the Gregorian calendar about 10 days every year because the Islamic lunar year is that much shorter, meaning Muslims in the Puget Sound region typically fast for 18 hours per day when it falls over the summer months. For students, it’s a constant balancing act between school and a fundamental part of their faith.
In Tukwila, where about a third of students identify as Muslim, the school district has made changes. Foster High School, which had traditionally spread graduation rehearsal and other end-of-the-year activities across three days, this year packed all events into a single day. New Principal Meg McGroarty said she made the decision to allow her Muslim students to celebrate Eid al-Fitr at home with their families this weekend.
“I’m still learning about Ramadan,” McGroarty said. “It’s just part of what you do to understand and respect the culture of your school.”
Wiqaa Al Jubeer, a 17-year-old Foster student whose family emigrated from Iraq to Tukwila last year, says her school’s policies have always made her feel welcome.
“A lot of people told us not to move here, that we’d be harassed, that I’d be forced to take off my (head) scarf. When we arrived, it was so surprising,” she said. “Everyone is so kind and respectful. I never expected to feel so appreciated or for anyone to care about what I needed.”
Franklin High School in Seattle rescheduled its prom and senior breakfast to avoid disrupting Ramadan. The school last year also interrupted its late-night graduation ceremony and provided loaves of bread for graduates to break their fast.
Other schools have added Eid and other religious holidays such as Rosh Hashana to their calendars, a cue to teachers to implement lighter lesson plans on those days.
Not all Muslims want schools to make special accommodations for Ramadan and other religious activities.
Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations chapter in Los Angeles, said he has heard of schools there changing their athletic schedules for fasting students or offering space in the library or an empty classroom for students to pray in. Some of those adjustments may be contradictory to the religious significance of Ramadan, he said.
Fasting “was designed to be an inconvenience. It’s about sacrificing something important to you, like food and drink, to show that you’re in control.” Ayloush said. “For Muslims, it’s not a time to take a break from the regular day-to-day work and studies. You go about your life.”
At Renton High School this year, administrators rescheduled finals so teachers could excuse students who needed to pray, but they required them to make up the tests later.
“Our main responsibility is to prepare kids for life beyond school,” said Randy Matheson, spokesman for the Renton School District. “It’s a real balance: Do they really want an accommodation they may not receive moving forward? Or do we just provide it to them because you don’t want to come off as disrespectful?”
Nada Khalil is a sophomore track and field athlete at Redmond High School who is opting to miss morning Eid celebrations with her family to prepare for finals.
“I don’t like having to choose between school and my holidays,” said Khalil. “But I can’t miss finals prep.”
During Ramadan, she took long naps after school and an exercise class until the fast-breaking meal, which happens about 9 p.m. After eating, homework consumes her night before she tries to sleep for two hours. Her alarm rings at 6 a.m.
Redmond High officials have worked with students who requested time to pray or for a break from physical education in the past, according to Shannon Parthemer, spokeswoman for the Lake Washington School District. Rose Hill Middle School, for example, always scheduled its “mile run” fitness exam before Ramadan, she said.
While Khalil says she wishes that her school made more accommodations for Muslim students, she hesitated to ask for any.
“I’ve never really brought up religion with my teachers,” she said. “I don’t like being put on the spot, or being asked too many questions about it.”
Her mother, Rania Elhalafawy, says she would love for schools to start giving the Eid holiday off but doesn’t push the issue with Khalil’s teachers so she doesn’t come off as rude or trying to break the rules.
“It’s intimidating,” said Jasmin Samy, the interim executive and civil-rights director for the Washington chapter of CAIR. “I’ve been to schools where there’s only one Muslim. They feel that with everything going on right now, they’ll be misunderstood.”
In a 2017 survey conducted by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, 42 percent of Muslim parents reported that their school-age children were bullied, a rate the report says is four times the general population. In about 25 percent of the reported incidents, teachers or other school employees were doing the bullying, it said.
To encourage students and families to speak up more about bullying incidents and accommodations, Samy says educators should start the conversation.
“Don’t wait for the student to come to you with a problem,” said Samy, who gives regular speeches advising teachers on inclusion strategies. “An 11- or 12-year-old student might not want to tell their teachers they need time off from class to pray.”
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