WHITELAND — A Sikh-American advocacy group on Monday held awareness training for more than 100 administrators and staff at Whiteland Community High School following a physical altercation involving students last month the group said was racially and religiously motivated.
The training happened exactly one week after a Sikh student returned to school after he and other students were suspended in connection with the Feb. 23 altercation, according to the Sikh Coalition.
The Coalition said that, after the altercation, school administrators responded quickly to address bullying within the Clark-Pleasant Community School Corporation.
"This is an important and necessary first step towards deeper engagement with the school. Ultimately what we want to do is make sure that all students — regardless of their faith, regardless of their identity — feel safe in school and have a safe learning environment," said Harman Singh, Sikh Coalition senior manager of education.
The coalition said a WCHS senior, who is a Sikh, and Punjabi classmates were eating lunch when a group of students began filming them and said "Why do you wear these turbans?” and “Why are you here?”.
The Sikh student tried to prevent the group from filming, at which point, the coalition says, they physically assaulted him and made racist remarks.
Singh said at one point the group took a turban off the student's head and trampled it.
The school district previously said Superintendent Patrick Spray had reached out to the Sikh community to start a dialogue.
Singh said that the Sikh Coalition was appreciative of the district's openness to Monday's dialogue but said the steps to get to that point were, "less than ideal."
Nationally, 67% of Turban-wearing Sikh students report being bullied, and Sikhs are bullied at more than two times the national rate, according to Singh.
"It's a deeply disturbing situation for the Sikh community here in Indiana. Unfortunately, it’s reflective of larger concerns the Sikh community has, both here in Indiana and across the country," he said.
Singh added that members of the Sikh community had previously expressed concerns regarding discriminatory comments and bias-based bullying at WCHS.
The purpose of the training, Singh said, is not only to make sure educators are equipped with the resources to address bias-based discrimination but also to clear some of the misconceptions non-Sikhs may have about Sikhism.
Sikhism is the world's fifth-largest world religion, and there are over 500,000 Sikhs living in the United States, with a growing population in Indiana, according to Singh.
"Ultimately, dialogue is a great first step toward resolving greater concerns the community has," he said.
Singh encouraged educators to start a dialogue with their Sikh students and consider the challenges they may face in the classroom.
Though the training was for just one day to start, Singh said the coalition's goal is to provide training at all Clark-Pleasant schools.
"We are appreciative of the positive progress that's being made here, and we want to continue to deepen that engagement as we move forward," he said.