Newest human rights panel member to take aim at prejudice in schools Wilde Lake senior starts this week HOWARD COUNTY EDUCATION

January 04, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

The newest member of the county's Human Rights Commission wants to reduce prejudice in schools and increase tolerance among students.

Shamim Sinnar, a 17-year-old Wilde Lake High School senior, starts her position this week as the commission's first student representative. She has all the privileges of being a commissioner, except that she may not vote in the commission's decisions.

"I want to improve communication so students do know I am the commissioner," she said. "Since the commission has no ties with the school system, I want them to know that they can come to me with concerns outside of the schools as well."

She was one of three students who vied for the position. The commission interviewed her as did County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who nominated her. The County Council confirmed her in November.

Shamim was born in Washington, D.C., but her parents are from India.

Her goal is to bring in speakers to discuss cultural and racial diversity, and to initiate prejudice reduction workshops for students.

"Prejudice reduction can be more effective if it's presented in the schools; if students early on respect cultures other than their own," she said. "As adults, they could be free from prejudice opinions or have less prejudice."

Commission members say they welcome her aboard. "She brings refreshing youthfulness and insight that too many of us have forgotten," said Jan Nyquist, commission chairwoman. "We're thrilled to have her. The vitality she brings in is just wonderful."

Commission member Roger Jones said, "She's definitely motivated and insightful. She's really concerned about a lot of areas in the realm of human rights.

"I think she's a fantastic choice, and she seems to have everything together."

Shamim says there's a lot of work to be done in all schools -- from elementary up. "I think there are problems that we have to work on," she said.

At Wilde Lake, for example, students in the senior class picture had divided themselves by race: black students sat on one side, and whites and others on the other side. Whether it was unintentional or racist, Shamim doesn't know, but the picture had created a minor flap at school among teachers.

"There have been some racial incidents, but there's racial incidents at many other schools," she said.

Shamim became a U.S. citizen before her parents did. Her father, a mechanical engineer, had come to enter a master's program, and her mother, a pediatrician, later joined him.

Shamim has lived in Columbia since she was about 4 years old.

Although she says she's never been the target of a racial incident, she knows what it feels like to be the center of unwanted attention. She wears a scarf that hides her head -- a showing of modesty, according to her Muslim religion.

"I started wearing it in 10th grade," said Shamim. "It was uneasy wearing it at first. A lot of people wondered why I wore it. They come up to me and say, 'I don't want to offend you, but I want to know.'

"I tell them they're not offending me," she said. "I want them to know."

Many students don't know about her religion, and she wishes students had the chance to ask her questions -- and that she had the chance to answer them.

"Some people aren't aware that [Islamic teachings] are much alike Christianity and Judaism," she said. "There are a lot of misconceptions about the present-day Islamic religion. A lot of people think the religion doesn't let women have any freedom. But a lot of these things arise from the culture."

She said she hopes other schools could hold a Cultural Awareness Day, similar to the one held at her school last month.

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