ARTICLE

Hate at School: August 2018

In the first month that students returned to school in much of the United States, we found that hate picked up where it left off last year.

Many students returned to class in August. While this is typically a time of renewed excitement and anticipation of the year ahead, some school administrators had to turn their attention to cases of hate. 

In August, we recorded 29 hate and bias incidents across 18 states. It’s not the most we’ve seen in a given month since we began tracking last fall, but it’s discouraging to see so many during a time when many students weren’t even in school. 

Here’s what we observed last month: 

  • Forty percent of incidents—12 of 29—were initiated by adults. A superintendent, a principal and a school board candidate were among those who spread hate last month.
  • A majority of the incidents—70 percent—were racist in nature.
  • More than a quarter of incidents targeted a student’s religion. Seven included anti-Semitic sentiments; one was Islamophobic. 
  • Four of these incidents attacked students’ intersectional identities, combining racism with either anti-immigrant or anti-LGBTQ sentiments. 
  • One incident included ableist language. 

We monitor these events and offer our resources not to shame schools, but to help provide support when a bias event makes students feel unsafe. Sometimes the harm is compounded by a school’s response or by institutional silence on an issue.

We were disappointed by how many of these incidents began with the actions of adults—those who are supposed to protect and uplift students. And we’re disheartened by the failure of adults to speak up against bigotry and hate. 

In Buford, Georgia, for example, a superintendent was caught on a recording using the n-word. Although he resigned, some of his colleagues didn’t step forward to condemn his language. Many of his staff instead expressed sadness at his departure, and one school board member reportedly lamented, “We lost a strong leader.”

In Royersford, Pennsylvania, video surfaced of a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher portraying a Nazi at amateur wrestling competitions. After an outcry from parents, the teacher apologized. But while school officials say they don’t condone his actions, he will remain a teacher at the district. 

At a charter school in El Cerrito, California, an eighth-grade teacher allegedly called a student the n-word during class. The teacher has been placed on paid administrative leave, and parents and students have staged a sit-in as they call for her firing. 

And in Achille, Oklahoma, some parents in a Facebook group not only failed to speak up; they added to the hate directed toward a seventh-grade transgender student who used the girls’ bathroom at her school. Referring to her with words like “he,” “it” and “thing,” the adults threatened the child with violence. These threats led to the school closing for two days, and they’re prompting the family to move—again. They’d already left their last home in Texas after the girl was subjected to violent threats and students insisting that she kill herself. 

This case is extreme, but August brought a number of situations when adults—even if they weren’t actively promoting hate—failed to think through the ways their actions diminish the dignity of their students. 

Biased dress code policies continue to be a problem. Black children at schools in Florida and Louisiana were turned away for common hairstyles—locs and braids. And in Arizona, a teacher called the police on a teen who refused to remove a bandana until his white peers did the same. His arrest, caught on video, provides a disturbing example of over-policing in school spaces.

Culturally insensitive policies that force students to hide their identities defy the mission of establishing an inclusive learning environment. Learn more here.

Inside the classroom, backlash from a poorly considered classroom simulation also made the news this month. In an assignment intended to counter stereotypes and teach about bias, an Ohio middle school teacher asked students to consider who they’d save and who they’d leave behind if Earth were being destroyed. Among the information provided for consideration were race, sexual orientation, religion and ethnicity, forcing students to choose between, for example, “a militant, African-American medical student,” “a Hispanic clergyman who is against homosexuality” and “an Asian, orphaned 12-year-old boy.”

If you’re considering introducing simulations into the classroom, we hope you’ll read our article “Classroom Simulations: Proceed With Caution” before treading into this territory.  

And regardless of your plans for the year, we hope you’ll work to support a school climate that respects the dignity of all of your students. 

You can start by taking our school climate questionnaire to get an idea of the perceptions that educators, staff, students and parents have of your school’s climate and to identify areas for possible improvement. 

And you can ensure that your school has policies in place so that, if a hate incident does occur, your community knows what to do. Our guide Responding to Hate and Bias at School can walk you through the process.

As this school year begins, we want to thank all of you who are working to make your schools safe, inviting, humanizing—and humane—spaces where all identities are respected and all students can thrive.

We know we are not seeing every incident of hate and bias in U.S. schools, as many students with marginalized identities see their bullying or harassment go unreported or unrepresented. For example, we learned about 70 racist incidents that happened at an Orange County, North Carolina, school district during the 2016–17 school year only after a local news station pressed for the information for months. So we’re asking for your help. If you know of an incident occurring in your school, please email hateinschools@tolerance.org.

Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance. To report a hate incident happening at your school or community, email hateinschools@tolerance.org.