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Parents pressing N.J. schools to be Muslim-friendly

CLIFFSIDE PARK, N.J. -- Yasmeen Elsamra had a simple request: While her classmates were eating lunch, she wanted to go off to pray.

Yasmeen, now 14, was told that she could not do that, and she went home distraught that afternoon in October 2003. Praying five times a day is a cornerstone of her Islamic faith.

''If I wasn't allowed to pray my second prayer at school, I couldn't do it at home," she said. ''When school finishes, the third prayer begins."

Her family contacted a Muslim advocacy group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Eventually, the district acknowledged that it had no policy to prevent a student from praying alone in free time. It allowed Yasmeen to use an empty classroom to unroll her prayer rug, face the holy city of Mecca, and touch her head to the floor.

Her case was part of a nationwide effort by Muslim parents to make public schools more friendly and accommodating to Muslim students. The movement has gained strength since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

''The reality for many Muslim students in public schools is very difficult," said Ingrid Mattson, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America.

She said her children were sometimes taunted in their Connecticut school district. ''The kids will say: 'Hey, Osama, do you have a bomb? Are you going to blow us up?' " she said. ''My daughter has had people try to pull her head scarf off or say, 'What are you doing with that rag on your head?' But they have also had friends who defended them."

Noor Ennab, a fifth-grader who attends the private Muslim Al-Noor School in New York City, said she had been driven out of her public school by harassment after the events of Sept. 11.

''Before that happened, we were treated so kind," she said. ''Now it's like, 'You're a terrorist; get out of this country.' "

Older students have also had problems. Debra Mason of Jersey City said she had dropped out of Fairleigh Dickinson University's nursing program after she was told to remove her head covering during patient rounds.

The New Jersey civil rights division had found probable cause to proceed with an investigation into whether the school had violated her rights. The school declined to comment.

Some school districts are starting to take notice. A zero-tolerance policy on harassment of Muslim students was adopted by the Broward County school board in Florida, in March 2003, just before the United States invaded Iraq.

In February, Muslim community leaders led the Pledge of Allegiance at a high school in San Antonio, as part of a daylong conference on Islam.

In Paterson, N.J., home of the state's largest Arab-American community, schools let some students out of class early on Friday to attend prayers, given parents' permission. Paterson is one of a handful of New Jersey districts in which schools are closed for Eid-al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of the fasting and penitence period of Ramadan.

But despite a large Muslim student population in Baltimore, the school board voted, 10 to 0, against a proposal to add Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha, the feast that begins the pilgrimage to Mecca, to the school holiday calendar.

That disappointed Samira Hussein, a mother of four and an educator who helped to nudge the Montgomery County school district in Maryland. She and others got the district to send teachers and administrators to Ramadan observances, to mark the holiest month of the calendar, in which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.

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