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Ridgefield educators will learn about Muslim students’ faith in a training session Friday covering topics including religious holidays, misconceptions about Islam and the meaning of commonly used terms.
The online training is set to take place four months after a teacher was accused of telling a high school student who is Muslim and Arab American “we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” after the student asked for a homework extension. The incident sparked headlines across the globea district investigation and calls for dialogue from Muslim leaders.
“Any time we have an opportunity to bring in a specific group to enlighten us and share with us on a particular culture, we like to do that,” said Ridgefield schools Superintendent Letizia Pantoliano. “We’re committed to diversity.”
About 300 teachers, aides and administrators will participate in the 90-minute training, which will be offered during a professional development session by the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group.
The training was planned in conversations with district leaders and CAIR-NJ Executive Director Selaedin Maksut following the Oct. 20 incident at Ridgefield Memorial High School. 
“We welcome and applaud the school district for taking this step and being a model district for others in the fight against Islamophobia,” Maksut said. 
“It’s important for us because this past year, we have seen so many cases coming out of schools in the state and nation. In some cases, it’s not just bullying among peers but teachers targeting Muslim students.”
The lessons will include learning about holidays and terms like hijab, the headscarf worn by some Muslim women and girls for cultural identity, piety and modesty.
Educators will also hear about misconceptions about Islam and will learn, for instance, that just 20% of Muslims are from the Middle East. A racially and ethnically diverse faith group, they are also Southeast Asian, Hispanic and African American, CAIR will note. 
They will learn about misunderstood terms like “Allahu Akbar,” meaning “God is the greatest,” which is commonly used to show gratitude and praise to God.  
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The group is providing the training program for free.
Maksut, who will lead the session, will talk about the ways schools can accommodate Muslim students, such as having a quiet place for prayer or allowing students who fast during the Ramadan holy month to spend a lunch period outside the cafeteria. Some parents may also want to keep children out of sex education classes or coed gym activities and dances because of a focus on modesty in their faith, CAIR says in an educators’ guide.
Pantoliano said the training reflects the district’s commitment to learn about diverse communities, and by extension, better understand and serve their own students. The district is 30% white, 42% Hispanic, 24% Asian and 3% Black, according to 2019-20 state data. 
The state and the U.S. Census do not tally information about religious identification. But Ridgefield is home to a large Arab American community that the census identifies as more than 6% of the borough population. Arabs are both Muslim and Christian and are counted as white in surveys, though the Arab American community has pushed for their own racial category in the census. 
Mohammed Zubi, the high school senior who said he was called a terrorist, told ABC News in October that the incident made him deeply uncomfortable.
Aymen Aboushi, an attorney representing Zubi and his family, said his client also asked the district for educator training, but more action was needed. They also want the teacher to be held accountable, Aboushi said this week.
Superintendent Pantoliano said she could not comment about personnel matters, including the outcome of the investigation. The teacher, who was suspended after the incident, has not returned to the school, according to Aboushi, but he did not know if he was still working in the district.
While Pantoliano has seen training and curricula about various groups in the education field, material about Islam has been rare, she said. That sentiment has been echoed by Nagla Bedir, founder of Teaching While Muslim, a New Jersey-based nonprofit focused on education and anti-bias training. 
Bedir, a high school teacher in Perth Amboy, founded the group in 2018 to address a “massive gap in the education of teachers on Muslims and Muslim students,” she said in an interview last year.
Bedir is working with CAIR to develop and introduce a curriculum in New Jersey schools that shows the contributions of Muslims across disciplines, she said. Such lessons can help promote inclusive and accurate education and can help to counter Islamophobia, she said.
Half of Muslim parents with children in K-12 schools said their kids had experienced bullying over their religion, according to a 2020 survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a Michigan-based group that studies the Muslim American community.
Thirty percent said that a teacher or other school official was the source of the bullying.
In October, a second-grade student said a Maplewood teacher had pulled a hijab from her head. A lawyer for the student said a classmate corroborated the child’s account, but the teacher said it was a misunderstanding.
Last month, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office announced that it would not file charges against the teacher in the alleged bias incident due to insufficient evidence.
The Ridgefield training follows days after state Sen. Edward Durr, a Gloucester County Republican, introduced a bill calling on the state to recognize the two major Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, Politico.com reported earlier this week. 
Durr apologized in November, shortly after being elected, when it was revealed he’d posted anti-Muslim comments on social media in the past. 
His proposed legislation calls for days of observance with proclamations and activities or programs.
Durr met with Muslim leaders after his tweets surfaced, listened to their concerns and apologized. He reached out to Maksut later to propose the bill to mark the Eid holidays. 
“Every issue requires a unique response, whether it’s in Ridgefield or in the senator’s case, and it works in favor of greater good,” Maksut said. “It’s making lives better for more than just Muslims in New Jersey. It’s making New Jersey better.”
Hannan Adely is a diversity reporter covering Arab and Muslim communities for NorthJersey.com, where she focuses on social issues, politics, bias and civil rights. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
Email: adely@northjersey.com 
Twitter: @adelyreporter 

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