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'We are one': New Mexico school comes together to support a classmate bullied for wearing a hijab

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LAS CRUCES, N.M. — When a seventh-grader confided in social studies teacher Janice Adams after several students bullied her for wearing her hijab at school, tears pooled in her eyes.

Students had hurled Islamophobic insults. One student was dared to rip off her hijab, a traditional head covering worn by Muslim women, but he didn't go through with it.

"She was crying and she said she felt pretty alone," said Adams, a teacher at Camino Real Middle School in Las Cruces. "I told her how amazing she is and that she's loved."

Adams brought the girl to Brittany Johnson, a special education teacher who advises the school's leadership class and student council. In Johnson's classroom, the two teachers listened.

"It breaks my heart to know that this is even something we have to talk about," Johnson said. "(Bullying) is not something we take lightly. I suddenly felt that we needed to show everyone – not just her but her bullies as well – that we are one. You're not going to do that to one of our students. You're not going to make somebody feel like they're alone."

The next day, Johnson's leadership class, the student council, and members of the school's football and volleyball teams came together to escort the seventh-grader between classes to show their support. About 100 students gathered to walk her to class, Johnson said.

Adams put together photos from the student escort and posted a video on TikTok with the caption, "We are Camino Wildcats! Way to show we are one! We don't tolerate bullying!!"

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Principal Michelle Harris said the student escort shows that bullying is not tolerated at Camino Real.

"From the moment that happened, our teachers took a leadership role," Harris said. "Our students took a leadership role. What came out of that was a shift in the climate and the culture of our school."

"It was one event. It was two teachers. It was 100 kids, and now it's the entire population of our learning community," Harris added. "I'm really proud of them."

No students have been disciplined for the Islamophobic bullying, but Harris said there has been no further bullying.

The school district, which recently accepted an anti-bullying proclamation, has a series of presentations planned to bring awareness to bullying for Bullying Prevention Month in October.

"What we're really trying to emphasize is the root cause of bullying," said Amy Himelright, the school district's director of mental health and academic counseling. "We acknowledge that kids who bully, likely have untreated trauma, mental distress or environmental factors themselves. So not only do we need to treat and protect, obviously, any victims of bullying, but we take the stance that we also have to treat the bully."

Having an adult that students feel comfortable confiding in is vital when preventing bullying, Adams said.

"It's important to build that relationship with your students, so when they're in a situation, they know that they have a safe place to come to you," Adams said. "I think every teacher strives every day to create that environment for our students. I'm just glad she could come to me."

Follow Miranda Cyr on Twitter @mirandabcyr.