Education Lab

State schools chief decries discrimination in Fresno speech

In an effort to promote religious and cultural tolerance across the Valley, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson made a rare visit to the region on Friday, speaking at the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno alongside other Valley leaders to take a stand against discrimination.

Torlakson said he is concerned about reported incidents of harassment of Muslims and Sikhs in the Central Valley.

“As superintendent of schools, I denounce any kind of discrimination or intolerance,” he said. “Schools are such a great place for young people to learn about the abundant diversity in California and in our world, and the diversity here is truly our strength.

“Here our teachers are going beyond just tolerance, but how do we respect, how do we understand each other as human beings from diverse backgrounds?”

Other Valley leaders who spoke at the news conference included Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, Fresno County schools Superintendent Jim Yovino, Rabbi Rick Winer of Temple Beth Israel, and Amrik Virk of the Sikh Council of Central California.

Virk said he was grateful for the outpouring of community support, including candlelight vigils and anti-bullying campaigns in schools, after an attack on a Sikh man in January led to his death. But Virk said there’s still much more work to do.

“We are thankful to all those people who have helped us, who have organized functions to bring out the identity of the Sikhs, and who have stood out against hate and who have stood out with us,” Virk said.

Imam Seyed Ali Ghazvini, leader of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, said racism and bigotry are on the rise in the nation, seemingly encouraged by remarks made during the presidential campaign.

“This is impacting many hardworking communities, including Muslims, Sikhs and immigrants,” Ghazvini said. “Last summer there was a survey in our area that showed 59 percent of the local population supports Donald Trump’s statements in which he called for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S. until the government could figure the situation out.”

While Ghazvini said he personally believes Trump won’t win the presidential election, he said the scars that Trump’s comments are creating will stay with the country for a while.

“This is why we are asking our schools and our teachers to step up their efforts to counter bigotry, racism and the dehumanization of others,” Ghazvini said.

Other speakers also emphasized the importance of education as well as interfaith collaboration between diverse religions, cultures and backgrounds.

“We are committed to the children of this community because that is where we have to start, that we have to start educating our children that the racism and the bigotry that may come from generations ahead of them have to stop with them,” Smittcamp said.

In a diverse community such as Fresno, Yovino said, children should feel that their culture is appreciated and valued. If it weren’t for diversity, Yovino said, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

Darius Assemi, head of Granville Homes, said America is great because of its values, its tolerance and its religious freedom. As a Muslim immigrant from Iran, Assemi said, he considers himself an American.

“We are immigrants and this is a nation of immigrants, and I’m proud to be an immigrant and proud to call the United States my country and my home,” Assemi said.

Torlakson also was scheduled Friday to be the keynote speaker at an arts summit in downtown Fresno and to visit Madera South High School and Madera High to see the district’s agriculture and engineering technology programs.

Megan Ginise: 559-441-6614