Can Modesto’s world religions class help bridge the divides?

Nearly 20 years ago, a case of egregious bullying galvanized the Modesto City Schools community behind what became the nation’s only required world religions course in high schools. A new Canadian study finds the course is changing hearts and minds, raising hopes it can deter religious bullying.

But even with a strong interfaith alliance and more enlightened graduates, a local imam and rabbi noted, Modesto still has bullies.

“Going forward, we have a lot to do. It’s a crazy world right now,” said Alice Chan, a doctoral student at McGill University in Montreal. Chan traveled to Modesto to do her thesis in part on what remains the only district in the nation to require students take a world religions course. She returned earlier this month to share her research with Modesto’s faith leaders.

Students who took the course reported they better understood other religions, and their diverse classmates, and their answers showed greater tolerance, she said in a presentation at Congregation Beth Shalom on April 7.

“A number of them have shown that the course has changed their attitudes. They understand people differently,” Chan said. “The findings here are very clearly positive. The results (of my similar study) in Montreal are very inconclusive. ... But here, there is something about this course that changes attitudes.”

The results did not surprise retired Modesto teacher Yvonne Taylor, one of the original seven who developed the course in concert with local religious leaders and the First Amendment Center. “I’m very proud of what we did,” Taylor said after hearing Chan’s presentation.

The class, in place since 2000, spends much of its first day assuring students the course does not advocate any religion, and emphasizing respecting ideas does not mean agreeing with them. Over nine weeks it lays out the basic tenets and history of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism and Hinduism. World geography fills the rest of the semester.

The state recognized Modesto’s world religions course with a Assembly resolution in 2014, and its lessons filled a chapter of Linda K. Wertheimer’s 2015 book, “Faith Ed.” The new California history framework, adopted in July, suggests “a survey of world religions” as a freshman option. Taylor said the outline largely follows the course, which she presented at state hearings seeking input for the new framework.

Many teachers and districts would like to add the course, Chan said, but fear community reaction. The Modesto community, it should be noted, did not initially embrace religious literacy. It was actually a furor 20 years ago over protecting gay students who were bullied that led to a 115-member community committee, which hashed out a character education program, which led to the world religions course.

“I do see Modesto as a place that tolerates diversity,” said Rabbi Shalom Bochner. He also belongs to the Stanislaus County Interfaith Council, he said. “The range of perspectives and people’s desire to build relationships with each other is very inspiring across the religious, political and ethnic divides.”

The synagogue has received a few disturbing phone calls and letters with hateful messages in recent months, Bochner said, but also offers of help and solidarity.

“We have experienced recent incidents of Jewish students being bullied and Alice's research can help proactively move forward,” he said.

In her presentation, Chan stressed, most people do not understand that there is religious bullying, and teens rarely report bullying – especially religious bullying. The current political atmosphere, moreover, has amplified the problem.

“The Trump effect is real,” she said, referring to a rise in bullying and baiting educators saw as anti-Islam and anti-immigrant rhetoric flared around President Donald Trump’s campaign and election. Preliminary findings of a scholarly study found 90 percent of over 25,000 U.S. teachers polled said the political climate has had a negative effect on the mood and behavior of students since the elections.

“That’s very disheartening,” Chan said. “Bullying of any sort is a communal issue. It is a societal issue, so we need a societal response.”

At the Islamic Center of Modesto, Imam Ahmad Kayello did not need a major study to tell him religious bullying has gotten worse.

“I know it is a problem. It is happening. It is not being reported, for different reasons,” Kayello said Friday. “It really got bad around the election time, with the president making his speeches. It was really a hard time.”

Students have told him the bullying is frightening, but mostly verbal. “Usually it’s about making comments – ‘Go back where you came from. We don’t want you here.’ ‘You terrorist!’ Things like that,” he said. “If you can only imagine the dominance of a seventh-grader or eighth-grader being bullied, and the impact that has on a student.”

The research Chan did was a start, he said, “She got the picture, but not fully.” He believes the class helps but, in the current climate, is not enough.

“We have to appreciate all (Modesto City Schools) did and what they’re doing now. But I think it’s a very serious subject, and I’m not talking just about Muslims,” Kayello said. “Bullying can be against anybody.”

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin