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Discrimination

Haifa Was Forced to Choose Between Her Faith and School, She Chose Faith

There are students who admire the change and influence of great women in history. And then there are students who use their own influence to make history themselves. Haifa is one of those students. Haifa was forced to choose between her faith and her school. She chose her faith and transferred out of Oakland Tech—the school many consider Oakland’s crown jewel—during her first year. She is in college now, but her legacy lasts, through a formal policy change she influenced there, and at other schools—hopefully including yours. Here is the story quoted from her guest blog, where she recounted her experience at Oakland Tech.
All was good until P.E. class, where I was told that I had to swim and that only medical reasons are accepted if one can’t. Due to cultural and religious reasons, I can not swim alongside men. I approached my coaches and they weren’t happy when I explained my situation. They said, “You’re not the first to say you can’t and usually when the parents hear their kids will get an F they will understand.” I repeated myself, I can’t swim with men. There was a male student beside me as I said it and one of the coaches told me “You’re beside him and in class you are by men too, and it’s not against your religion to wear swimsuits, you only need to cover your skin.” I wish my ninth-grade self-had the fire I have in me now to let her know she will not tell me what my faith is. Sitting next to a guy in a classroom is not the same as swimming with a man. Furthermore, swimming isn’t the only thing that goes on between female and male students when they’re in the swimming pool. I didn’t want to subject myself to that.
For those who may have missed it, the Constitution guarantees free exercise of religion and non discrimination. So telling a student she must choose to either violate her religious beliefs or get an F and not graduate is illegal.

A “Fire” for Justice

Haifa found her own path to success at McClymonds and is now at Mills College, but before she left Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), she didn’t stop fighting. She got support from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (C.A.I.R.) and she kept telling her story, first in a powerful youth voice program, Energy Convertors, and at my blog and to the good folks at C.A.I.R. I had heard that her story was bouncing around the OUSD interwebs—good hearted people pressing to see if this trash was still “the policy,” with furrowed brows. It was wonderful to get news that the policy had changed—officially. Oakland Tech created a religious exemption for swimming—you can see an excerpt of the policy outlined on the school website below. This is a testament to Haifa’s fire, and also the power of empowered student voice. Appreciate everyone involved in fixing this, and especially Haifa, for continuing to fight for what was right even after she had moved on. There’s a lot of smoke in Oakland, and folks talking without walking. Appreciate the fire, we need more of it.
This post originally appeared on the Great School Voices blog.
Dirk Tillotson
Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City, and he’s even consulted on education issues in the Middle East. As a child, his ...

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