BRATTLEBORO — An eighth-grader at Brattleboro Area Middle School was left speechless after another student told him that he should seek mental health help in Iraq if he was upset after losing a game in gym.
“I didn’t know what to say,” said Zane Rizvi, whose father was born in India and mother is white.
Zane recalled confronting the boy a couple of days later, telling him not to say anything like that again before being pushed to the ground and called a terrorist. He said the boy also told a group of girls that he wanted to be part of the Taliban, and told Zane he had to say something about being in the Taliban in front of other classmates or he would send the mob after him.
“I didn’t want to be beaten up by him for the third time,” Zane said. “He attacked me last year when I was walking down the street.”
Zane said the boy threatened to end his life if he touched another boy in the class, after that boy chased him across the gym.
The boy who made the remarks has been reprimanded by the school for racial harassment after an investigation, according to correspondence between administrators and Zane’s father, Hasan Rizvi. BAMS Principal Keith Lyman said he can’t go into specifics on individual situations, but if administrators confirm harassment has taken place, they notify families of their findings, then hold the students accountable for their actions and educate them.
Lyman described the number of harassment cases in the school this year being in the single digits.
“It’s upsetting there’s been any,” he said. “We want to work to make sure that number is zero, so all kids feel safe.”
Zane said another boy asked him if he was a terrorist and told him he could call the Taliban for help if the first boy who harassed him gives him any further trouble. Two girls also called him “Pakistan nation,” one of whom has been reprimanded by the school after an investigation, according to correspondence between administrators and Hasan Rizvi.
“She’s trying to make fun of me because she thinks I’m from Pakistan or the Arab world or a Muslim country,” said Zane, whose family is not religious.
Zane recounted when a teacher asked students to make cards saying what they were grateful for during Thanksgiving and a classmate told him he should write the Taliban.
Zane doesn’t feel school staff are doing enough to address the incidents. He said the boy who first started making comments was suspended and taken out of Zane’s classes, and another girl was suspended, but other students who have made remarks have not been reprimanded, and the girl who was suspended wasn’t taken out of his classes.
Like his father, Zane believes a schoolwide assembly would be a worthwhile endeavor. They said school staff have addressed issues individually with “bad apples.”
“The way their interactions work is, if they see a bunch of people are getting away with something, they pile on and do the same thing,” said Hasan, whose son is considering dropping out of eighth grade as he struggles to concentrate on his schoolwork.
Zane said he doesn’t really feel safe in school and only goes because he gets to play basketball.
“The administration has completely let me down,” he said. “They said, ‘Zane, I’m really sorry. This is unacceptable.’”
Other times, Zane said, administrators are “emotionless. They take their notes and just ignore the fact that these racist remarks are being made.”
“The school has ignored it and failed to take charge and has not put their foot down,” Zane said. “It’s disgraceful, and they’ll never do anything.”
Zane said he has skipped school about seven days during a three-week period because he didn’t feel comfortable and basketball games weren’t happening because of COVID-19. When he went back to school and was called “Pakistan nation,” it made him feel depressed. And he’s also been asked why he “snitched.”
So upset by the incidents, Zane said he has cried in the principal’s office and had nightmares. He’s starting to think that everyone in the school might start to hate him and make hurtful comments.
Also, he wonders if the new Afghan refugees coming to Brattleboro might hate him or be scared of him if they hear he supports the Taliban. He said the Taliban is why the refugees are leaving their country for this one, and he called their policies “disgusting.”
School staff work really hard to prevent incidents reported by Zane from happening, Lyman said.
“When they do, we take them very seriously. We hold kids accountable,” Lyman said. “It’s really upsetting to think that one of our students would harass another student. ... We want to support all the kids, obviously supporting the victims, and try to make the situation better. We want to work with families that experience this and if things like this happen, obviously they shouldn’t, our goal is to correct them. The other goal is to prevent reoccurrence.”
To make the school a welcoming atmosphere for all, Lyman employs a mix of different tools. That includes education on preventing incidents, explanations and reminders of the rules and consequences, and curriculum tied to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice.
Lyman said learning about these subjects would continue.
Lyman recounted meeting with students and the assistant principal on the tennis court in the fall to talk about harassment, then the school counselors discussing different types of harassment in individual classrooms.
“This fall, in response to some things, the administrators did not have a whole school assembly due to COVID,” he said. “We went and met with small groups in classrooms and went over, re-emphasized, those rules and expectations, and talked about different rules against harassment.”
At the time of the interview Lyman said he was excited about Black Lives Matter Week in schools this week, for which BAMS planned an assembly on Monday where each grade will be sent “a clear message” about the school staff’s expectations for behavior related to issues of social justice and diversity, and the responsibilities of classmates to make the school a safe and healthy environment for their peers.
Regarding Zane, Lyman said, “We’re upset he feels that way. We need to support our kids the best we can.”