MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. (FOX 5 DC) - Montgomery County Public Schools is promising changes after a bus driver says he was the target of racial and religious harassment.
Sawinder Singh is a 45-year-old Sikh-American who maintains his Sikh articles of faith. After a recent settlement with MCPS, he is also the face of sweeping changes being implemented by the school district.
Singh says he loves his job as a school bus driver for MCPS but says that almost from day one in 2006, his beard and turban made him the target of racial and religious harassment.
"'Osama bin Laden' or 'You look like a terrorist' or 'Is this bus gonna blow up because of this driver?' Those things are heartbreaking," said Singh.
Singh says the abuse came from coworkers, supervisors and students.
"When I wasn't accepted as a normal American, it broke my heart," said Singh.
In 2016, he made a decision to steer his experience in a different direction.
With assistance from the Sikh Coalition and Public Justice, he filed an official complaint with the EEOC.
A subsequent investigation would include the use of bus cameras, witness statements and Singh's own painful recounting of each experience and slur.
On Wednesday, he and school officials reached a settlement agreement.
"My main thing is to change because my dream is for my children to... when they become professional... I want to be sure the whole environment has changed," said Singh.
Singh would not say whether there was a financial payout but in a statement sent to FOX 5,
MCPS says it is "committed to providing a safe and welcoming environment for our students and staff. MCPS has investigated each of the allegations brought to our attention by Mr. Singh and has taken swift corrective action with staff and students who engaged in the offensive behavior."
The agreement includes a renewed focus on nondiscrimination, equity and cultural proficiency, additional face-to-face training and a focus on addressing hate-based incidents in school communities.
Singh says he hopes these actions will lead to a greater understanding among employees and students of Sikhs and the recognition that Sikh-Americans are Americans.
"I'm here, I'm a part of you guys, I'm a part of the family and I'm not different," said Singh.
Singh says in many of the instances in which he was harassed, it would often be the students that stepped in to call out the bad behavior of others.
Read the statement from MCPS in full below:
"Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is committed to providing a safe and welcoming environment for our students and our staff. MCPS has investigated each of the allegations brought to our attention by Mr. Sawinder Singh and has taken swift corrective action with staff and students who engaged in the offensive behavior.
As codified in Policy ACA: Nondiscrimination, Equity, and Cultural Proficiency, MCPS "expects all students and staff to conduct themselves in a manner that demonstrates mutual respect without regard to an individual's actual or perceived personal characteristics." We do not and will not tolerate behavior that is hateful, bigoted, racist or discriminatory.
MCPS has taken several key actions in response to these incidents including, but not limited to:
Additional face-to-face training for all MCPS Department of Transportation ("DOT") staff in June 2016, on the implementation of Policy ACH, Workplace Bullying.
At Mr. Singh's request, listing him as a resource for secondary social studies teachers seeking speakers or performers for cultural and musical programs regarding the Sikh and/or South Asian community.
Working with Mr. Singh to chronicle his experiences in the June 2016 edition of theMCPS Bulletin, which is available at this link: https://news.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/staff-bulletin/five-questions-with-sawinder-singh-bus-route-supervisor-clarksburg-transportation-depot/
In conjunction with the aforementioned specific actions, MCPS has placed significant focus on addressing hate-based incidents in school communities. In 2017, MCPS launched an innovative contest for students, titled United We Learn: Combating Hate through the Arts. The goal of the contest was to provide students with a creative, structured opportunity to explore issues of prejudice and learn about the values of respect, diversity and civility. MCPS has also sent several messages to staff and the community reminding them that diversity must be celebrated and hate will not be tolerated. Additionally, this school year, MCPS established a new Cultural Proficiency training for staff, as well as an Examining Implicit Bias training.
MCPS has worked collaboratively with the Sikh Coalition and Public Justice to continue its support of Mr. Singh and to strengthen our efforts to increase equity and respect in the workplace and schools."