Does your school have a plan in place if an incident of hate or bias occurs—whether on campus or online? Such an incident can happen anywhere, any time, in any school community. For the good of your school and community at large, your answer can’t afford to be no. Take recent events at two high schools.
One concerns students from Albany High School in Albany, California. Several white students created a now-deleted Instagram account in which they racially insulted classmates of color. One post featured an image of a black doll with images of the Ku Klux Klan, a torch and a noose. Another post featured a photo of a student of color with a noose around her neck.
Hundreds of Albany High students responded by holding a three-hour-long sit-in and carrying posters stating, “Black is beautiful” and “We won’t stand for racism.”
The principal and superintendent noted in a statement that other racially biased incidents involving the students who created the Instagram account had been going on for months and admitted that the school climate was in need of some repair. These students had been making Nazi hand salutes and other anti-Semitic gestures in the hallways. “These recent events have underscored our need to ... implement restorative justice practices, as well as culturally responsive teaching and practices,” the statement reads. “It is our goal not only to set the tone that any racist, sexist, discriminatory, or hate related speech and behavior will not be tolerated, but that we also create a school community in which all students feel safe, welcome, and respected.”
Another case from last week involves students from Monarch High School in Coconut Creek, Florida. Two white students invited a black student, who attends homeschool, to the prom with a sign that read, “You may be picking cotton, but we’re picking you to go to the prom with us.” A photo of the students holding the sign—all three smiling—went viral and quickly attracted ire. A spokesperson for the district explained the district’s pride in the community’s and schools’ diversity and that it’s “committed to providing learning environments that foster inclusion and respect.”
In each case, at Albany High and Monarch High, the offending students were suspended and the school or district made it a point to let the public know that an investigation was underway. Albany High even had their suspended students meet with teachers and targeted students upon their return to school.
Each school did something, but that’s not enough.
As Teaching Tolerance advises administrators dealing with such incidents in the guide Responding to Hate and Bias at School, “Whether the incident was violent or nonviolent, one of your most important tasks as an administrator is to focus on restoration and not merely punishment.” That means restoration for the entire school community, families included, because the entire community has been wounded.
So when a meeting scheduled for Saturday, April 1, with Albany High’s principal was canceled via email the night prior to the meeting without explanation, families were disappointed, to say the least. “We looked forward to this meeting to be the adult examples our children need to see,” said one parent. Families have yet to hear from the school or district about rescheduling.
After the Monarch High incident, softball teammates and families of the suspended students said the sign was an inside joke and that no offense was intended. But again, the whole community has been affected by this “joke,” and healing needs to take place.
No one wants to deal with these kinds of incidents or their aftermaths. News travels quickly, emotions are high and people want answers. Administrators, yes, do condemn the act, communicate with media and respond appropriately to offending students.
But it is just as important—perhaps more so—for you to tend to the state of your school community during the crisis and the days after. The wellbeing of the student body needs to be your priority, so focus on repairing your school’s climate for the short and long term. That means providing opportunities for all students and families to express themselves and to hear from you and each other. That means promoting efforts to reduce prejudice, celebrate differences and foster empathy—in the curriculum and throughout school programming. That means unequivocally condemning biased acts and language. And that most certainly means having a plan in place well before any incident occurs.
Responding to Hate and Bias at School, as well as our other school climate resources, can help.
Bell is the senior editor for Teaching Tolerance.