Japjee Singh, a 17-year-old Sikh student in Georgia, has been bullied because of his religion since the second grade. The issue escalated once he began middle school and continued into high school. Students would call him names, refer to his turban as a “bomb,” or suggest he was a terrorist. A group of students once beat Japjee multiple times, leaving him with a broken nose, fractured chin, and bruised body.
“This is something we haven’t been able to forget,” Aasees Kaur, Japjee’s 20-year-old sister, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “He was sitting there with blood all over him and an ice pack in his hand and kids were telling him ‘go back to your country.’ When kids are saying such harsh things, it really broke my family.”
Japjee required two surgeries after the beating, his sister recalled. And when he eventually came back to school, the bullying didn’t stop. One student reportedly threatened to go after Japjee and his family with “a 9-millimeter and a blade.”
Aasees said that the school never took action.
Japjee lost his entire sense of belonging.
“We lost trust in the school administration and Japjee lost his entire sense of belonging,” Aasees said. “These were kids that he grew up with. He went to school with them for years and now all of a sudden, he didn’t know who his friends were. They didn’t quite get the line between harassment and joking around.”
Between May 2013 and November 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice entered two settlements with the DeKalb County School District near Atlanta, Georgia on behalf of Japjee. The first agreement reached in May required DeKalb County to create a safety plan for Japjee and to train students and staff on post-9/11 backlash and discrimination. The second agreement reached in November required DeKalb County to “engage in comprehensive measures” to stop “peer-to-peer bullying” among the district’s 100,000 students, including Sikh students, according to a press release from the Sikh Coalition.
Though things have gotten better for Japjee, discrimination still hasn’t ended for their family. Aasees’ cousin is still being bullied, according to a recent interview with The Huffington Post.
But Japjee and Aasees are taking action. Two years ago, Japjee testified before Congress as part of a larger advocacy effort to end bullying against Sikh American school children. And now, the family is hoping to get their story out.
Japjee’s case is part of a larger issue that the White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI) is trying to address through its launch of an anti-bullying campaign this week to combat bullying against Asians and to empower students to report, stop, and prevent bullying. The Sikh Coalition and the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) are campaign partners.
WHIAAPI’s Act to Change public awareness website includes YouTube videos of Asian celebrities like Charlotte Hornets basketball player Jeremy Lin and actor Maulik Pancholy talking about being bullied. It also provides resources in Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Punjabi, Urdu, and Vietnamese. The campaign calls on the public to take a pledge to end bullying or to help someone who has been bullied.
“Bullying is a major civil rights issue for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in particular,” Initiative Executive Director Kiran Ahuja said in a press statement. “We’ve seen too often AAPI groups, including Sikh, Muslim, Micronesian, LGBT, and limited English proficient youth, targeted for bullying and harassment.”
Aasees believes that the campaign could help people like her brother and other bystanders raise their voices against bullying. She said that the multilingual resources would be important for some parents who may not read English fluently so that they would be able to know what to do with when their children are bullied. But the presence of the campaign would also let students know that they’re not alone.
Kids like Japjee only have one childhood.
“There are thousands of Japjees out there who haven’t spoken out yet,” Aasees said. “There are thousands of Japjees out there who don’t know what to do. This campaign will really let them know that they have a tremendous amount of support behind them and could be a guide for what they should do if they’re being bullied.”
In a 2014 Sikh Coalition survey of 500 Sikh students and focus groups with over 700 students, researchers found that over 50 percent of Sikh children endured school bullying, with 67 percent of turbaned Sikh children saying that they are bullied in school. Nationally, about 32 percent of all children ages 12 and 18 reported that they were bullied in school. What’s more, 50 percent of Asian American students in New York City public schools reported biased based harassment, a statistic that could be under-reported.
Over the past 15 years, public consciousness has been raised about bullying and multiple states have moved to pass legislation to address the issue. According to a recent study published by JAMA Pediatrics, students living in states that have passed anti-bullying laws reported lower levels of bullying.
“School systems and community outreach programs and parents really need to partner up strongly with underrepresented communities to make sure that our children are better protected, that their needs are being met,” Aasees said. “Parents have a responsibility too, so it’s a matter of education in both the home and the school to teach about bullying. Kids like Japjee only have one childhood. When you see kids that withdrawn, it breaks you.”
Disclosure: The author of this piece serves as an E3! ambassador for the White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders, which advocates on behalf of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across the country.