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Mantej Singh, 7, left, and a classmate, watch a video at Parkmont Elementary School, in Fremont, on Monday , Nov. 15, 2010. A group of Silicon Valley activists are asking about 1,000 schools in San Jose and Fremont to play a 15-minute DVD and hold discussions about what the Sikh religion is really about, and explain why its devout members don't cut their hair. (Karen T. Borchers/Mercury News)

Middle school's reputation for bullying is so notorious that just about every student has a story to share.

Now, imagine what school would be like if you wore a turban.

In the first report of its kind for the Bay Area, the Sikh Coalition, a national nonprofit with an office in Fremont, released findings last week showing that hundreds of Sikh children report feeling teased and taunted, being called "terrorist" and "diaper head."

More than 150,000 Sikhs call the Bay Area home, and students from San Jose to Vacaville report that they have been taunted, punched, even threatened with scissors. Their perception of bigotry and bullying far surpasses the national average.

"I was surprised the numbers were this high in the Bay Area," said Neha Singh, the coalition's western region director. "Everyone assumes that in the Bay Area that things are different. But things are not that different here."

Her coalition surveyed more than 1,300 Sikhs in nine Bay Area counties, including 500 youths. The discoveries have Sikh parents fanning out to schools in Silicon Valley, even driving to Sacramento and Manteca. They are passing out DVDs and writing exercises, hoping teachers will allow them to teach students about their 500-year-old faith born in Punjab, India.

"Our team has been working at a frantic pace for the last four weeks," said Nirvair Singh, a Cupertino software engineer, who co-founded a group called SEVA right after Sept. 11, 2001. "We're alarmed. Sikh parents are particularly concerned about the hardships our children are facing in middle and high schools."

Sikh parents are trying to reverse what their children expressed in the report:

  • Seventy-four percent of boys who wear small turbans called patkas felt harassed in school.

  • Sixty-five percent of Sikh boys in middle school, with or without turbans, said they suffered some sort of racial or religious bullying.

  • In Santa Clara County, 40 percent of the Sikh youths said they felt harassed for their faith; in Alameda County, the number soared to 51 percent.

  • In the West Contra Costa Unified District, 85 percent of the boys and 15 percent of the girls reported being harassed.

    The national average of students who reported being bullied is about 30 percent, according to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center.

    One middle school boy profiled in the report is Harjit Singh, who did not want to say what school he attends. On Sept. 11 this year, Harjit said kids called him a terrorist. And during a P.E. class, somebody ripped off his patka and said, "I'm sorry, I just wanted to see if there was a bomb in there."

    Harjit punched the bully and was suspended for five days. He said the bully was suspended for four.

    Although it's less frequent, Sikh girls also report being teased. Sukhmani Kaur, described as a San Jose junior high school student in the report, said fellow students threatened to cut her hair at school.

    "They put opened scissors to my hair and threatened to cut it. They tried twice. The first time I told them to stop. They knew I couldn't cut my hair because of my religion. I told my counselor what happened, and nothing was done," she said in the report.

    To devout Sikhs, hair is a sign of strength. Leaving it uncut is one of the five main articles of their faith.

    If there's any uplifting revelation from the report, which mirrors one conducted in New York in 2008, it's that many Sikhs think bigotry can be curbed. Seventy-two percent of bullied Sikh youths thought it would be helpful to educate others about themselves; 60 percent surveyed said Sikhism is not taught in their schools.

    But that's changing this month, during Sikh Awareness and Appreciation Month, the first time such a designation was made by California's Legislature.

    Software engineer Taranjit Singh, and his wife, Jaspreet Kaur, visited their son Mantej's second-grade class at Parkmont Elementary School in Fremont, bringing with them a DVD on why Sikhs do not cut their hair and explaining their beliefs. The children learned that all men should take the last name Singh, and women take the last name Kaur, as a sign of equality.

    They learned that Sikhs believe in living honestly, working hard and sharing with others. The family then invited questions.

    In a shy voice, Mantej told his classmates how his mother ties his patka for him, and his father told the class that it's disrespectful to even touch a man's turban.

    The youngsters wanted to know how Mantej washes his hair and if it hung down lower than his waist.

    "I was very excited," Singh said after the presentation. "It was a clear example that people were not aware of us. This was a very good opportunity. I've been invited to come back now every year."

    Contact Lisa Fernandez at 408-920-5002.