Half of all Sikh children in the U.S. say they are bullied in school, according to a report by the Sikh Coalition — a rate roughly twice the national average.
Kaur took up this cause after her younger brother, Japjee Singh, was beaten so badly that he required two surgeries.
"This was all biased based," she says. "This was all because of his perceived identity. This was because of what he looked like and that his turban and beard were something to be feared."
On the bullying Kaur and her brother faced
"The both of us grew up in Georgia. We attended the DeKalb County School District. What had happened was we had seen severe verbal bullying all throughout elementary school, and including a lot of things like being called a terrorist, being asked if you're a boy or a girl, a lot of 9/11 related jokes — things along the lines of 'That's the day your dad died' — and just a lot of other hurtful things all throughout elementary school. Things got more physical in middle school and in 2012, to be more specific, he was assaulted at his middle school after lunch while walking from the lunchroom to his classroom before the class started. And that's when he had taken several punches to his face, to his chest. He had broken his nose, dislocated other parts of his face, which required him to get two surgeries to recover from."
On bullying after the assault
"It didn't stop. After that incident he had his hair forcibly cut in the middle of class. Somebody had taken scissors and cut his hair from the back of his head. So when you tie a turban, there's some hair that kind of still shows on the back. And that's where the kids had cut the hair from, which, to us, felt like a harsher, more bolder attack than physically attacking him. Because you can more easily recover from the bruising and the cuts and the stitches and the surgeries, but it's harder to pull yourself back up when you feel like someone physically tried to steal your identity from you."
On her family's response
"For years my parents took the same actions that any concerned parent would take. We engaged with his teachers. We tried working with principals and other senior administrators. We were always trying to come up with creative ways to educate educators, and not just educators, but also educate parents and classmates about the Sikh community and what our role has been in America's history. We would always try to come up with some creative ways. I don't think there was a fall festival or a spring clean-up or any of those things that we missed. But it wasn't enough.
"Because even after he had been assaulted and then had his hair cut, kids went as far as threatening his life with a 9 mm gun and a blade, and he was warned to not be surprised if he got stabbed. So we knew that we needed to do more to protect him. And, to be honest with you, that's kind of where our story deviates from the norm, is after that assault, we kind of realized that whatever we've done isn't enough, and we started to realize there's far more kids out there who don't know who to turn to for additional support."
"It’s harder to pull yourself back up when you feel like someone physically tried to steal your identity from you.”Aasees Kaur
On the next steps
"We knew that everything we had tried to make his schooling a better experience for him wasn't working. And that's when we contacted the Sikh Coalition, trying to seek legal support, and we weren't sure how exactly that would turn out to be. Because, until now, most parents and families and kids have always dealt with these issues alone because they're generally embarrassed, or scared, or a lot of the immigrant parents might not know what resources exist. So they usually don't know who to turn to for help. In our case, in Japjee's case, we proceeded to file an official complaint with the Department of Justice, which led to two landmark legal settlements that now protect more than 100,000 kids in the DeKalb County School District."
On worrying that their religion would make them a target
"Our community is very resilient, and for us, our hair and our articles of faith and our turban — it means that we stand up for what's just, for everybody. It means that we pursue equality in every way possible. It means that we're tolerant, and we're accepting, and we're compassionate, and those are also active choices we have to make. So it was an active choice that my family and I made, that, if these are the Sikh values, if we believe in justice, if we believe in equality, we couldn't ignore this issue. That we refuse to let biased-based bullying be ignored in the country. This issue needed to be addressed."
On whether things have gotten better
"You're correct in saying that more than two-thirds of the kids reported being bullied in school if they where turbans. And, have things gotten better in the last year? I would say we have seen a lot more school bullying legal intakes, we have witnessed a dramatic rise in those, but that doesn't necessarily mean that bullying cases nationally are on the rise. But it does mean that Sikh families know there are resources out there, that there is somebody who has their back, that there is somebody they can turn to for additional support. So more Sikh families are reporting these cases to us. Preventing biased-based bullying is, it's at the core of our work. We address this internally, within the community, but also externally, outside the community. We have a multi-year, state-by-state strategy of including Sikhism in state curriculum standards. We do workshops to educate the educators about who we are and our community's history. And internally, within the Sikh community, we're conducting workshops to educate Sikh parents and really reminding them that when their children are facing these issues in schools, it's a legal issue. These issues that we experienced, they altered my family's lives. And that's kind of when I knew that I didn't want it to dramatically alter somebody else's life.
"Having this conversation, we're making the problem matter, we're making it relevant and we're making it real. That itself is a step in the right direction. And as long as we remain engaged with our community, our elected officials and all of the other stakeholders, like school superintendents and any other senior administrators, we'll keep making sure that our kids are protected, they're having a great childhood, they're learning and they're blossoming in schools."
This article was originally published on March 21, 2018.
This segment aired on March 21, 2018.