Hate at School: February 2018

In a month featuring systemic issues, targeted threats and Black History Month backlash, we tracked 71 school-based episodes of hate in 29 states.

Editor's note: 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. So we're asking for your help. If you know of an incident occurring in your school, please email hateinschools@tolerance.org.

In February, media outlets covered 71 incidents of hate involving U.S. schools across the country, spanning 29 states.

Despite the short month, this represents the highest rate of hate incidents we've seen since October, when Teaching Tolerance tracked 90 such occurrences in schools. In January, we tracked 64 incidents, and thus, 2018 continues to trend in the wrong direction. 

These trends stood out among the February hate incidents: 

  • More than 15 percent of hate incidents took place at school events, such as basketball games. 
  • During Black History Month, no less, half of the incidents involved racial slurs. 
  • Ohio and California had the most reported incidents (seven), followed by New York (six). 

Beyond raw numbers, February's repeating narratives revealed pervasive problems, not just isolated incidents. School leaders, teachers and decision makers revealed their biases. Students faced targeted, disturbing and threatening harassment. And for many students, unsafe learning environments became too much to bear. They—and their communities—spoke up. 

These are our canaries in the coal mine. A nation of children and families overburdened by the biases of others, trying to tell us they deserve better. Trying to tell us, this is "not just this one time," "not just a mistake," "not just kids being too sensitive." 


Not Just "The Kids These Days"

We continue to see adults abusing their positions of power and failing to see and serve all students equitably. This occurs from the lunchroom to the classroom to the district office, and underscores an unfortunate reality: School leaders perpetuate current inequities through bias, both unconscious and purposeful. 

This goes to the top. In Osseo, Minnesota, a school board chair has resigned after sharing anti-Muslim and racist sentiments on social media. A board of education member in Pevely, Missouri, used the n-word. A board member in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, shared a meme that included a picture of a noose with the caption: "If we want to make America great again we will have to make evil people fear punishment again." A principal in Newark, New York, referred to "his colored students." 

In Citrus County, Florida, a teacher was discovered as a host of a white nationalist podcast, on which she bragged about bringing that bias into the classroom. A lunch aide in Gwinnett County, Georgia, called a student the n-word and said she'd be shot if she came to the other side of town. In Spring, Texas, a seventh-grade teacher allegedly called his black students "cotton pickers." In Brooklyn, an all-white PTA board promoted a fundraiser with a picture from the 1920s featuring people in blackface. 

And in Mt. Juliet, Connecticut, a Latino student has been sent to alternative school after allegedly sharing a Facebook post calling a teacher racist—a teacher he says made fun of his heritage. 


Not Just "Kids Being Kids" or "Jokes Gone Wrong"

Any incident of hate or bias creates an unsafe school climate for marginalized students. That said, we are distressed to see how many recent incidents directly threatened specific students or targeted a population of students with promises of violence. 

In Bledsoe County, Tennessee, a 17-year-old girl says she has endured years of racial harassment, her complaints ignored by teachers and school leaders. After being suspended for fighting a girl who used racial slurs against her, that other girl's mother posted a noose on Facebook. A young man in Clackamas, Oregon, faced harassment and racial slurs from his own basketball teammates. Another student in San Diego, California, had the n-word posted on his locker. A white boy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had "die cracker" spray-painted on his home.

In Henderson, Kentucky, someone posted on social media threatening students of color at the local high school. In Ypsilanti, Michigan, a slur-laden, school-wide email directed to six black students said black people need to leave the country. In Oxford, Alabama, a student faces felony charges after targeting a group of people with threatening, racist graffiti. A student in Gulfport, Mississippi, threatened to kill black students. 


Not Just Isolated Incidents

Students and families affected by repeated incidents of bias are, rightly, demanding to be heard, turning what can feel like a helpless situation into a call for equity and answers. 

In Paulding County, Georgia, tired of persistent racialized bullying in the county's schools, more than 30 parents and guardians marched to the office of the superintendent. Less than an hour down the road, students are protesting at South Cobb High School in Atlanta, where they allege a culture of racism among some teachers. They say teachers have made comments about lynching students, about "cotton-picking season," and about throwing a Latino student "over the wall." 

In Utica, Michigan, a family sought help from the ACLU after anti-Mexican and racist remarks directed at their daughter by students and teachers went unaddressed. And in Ventura, California, several hundred family members of middle school students showed up at a meeting to report repeatedly ignored bullying at the school—incidents that culminated in a girl being thrown to the ground by two boys, who shouted racial slurs at her. 

Students of color in Cache County, Utah; Wheeling, West Virginia; and Columbus, Ohio, report ongoing issues of racial harassment in the community and school. 


We also continue to see an immediate need for our Teaching Hard History: American Slavery resources, as educators and schools treat the subject cruelly or insufficiently. In the Bronx, a teacher's reenactment of the middle passage included stepping on black children. In Austin, Texas, a middle school teacher instructed students to draw pictures of themselves as enslaved people and explain what they would smell, hear, see, taste and touch. As we've repeated ad nauseum, these simulations do not build empathy, but instead put undue burden on students of color.

Further, the February incidents reveal the diverse range of marginalized students facing harassment and hate. In Plano, Texas, students walked out of school after some of their peers threatened to "beat the gay out of" a classmate. At basketball games in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Burlingame, California, Asian-American students endured racist chants. A girl in Gastonia, North Carolina, says that she was sexually assaulted and now faces bullying and harassment as a result.  

These incidents—alongside the scenes of families and students rising up to protest cultures of bias in schools from coast to coast—emphasize what we already know: The numbers we report, however high, represent but a sampling of the incidents happening nationwide. Some are just a sign of something more systemic. And some are hidden from us entirely. 

We applaud the schools who have followed our suggestions for responding to these incidents of hate and bias. Many schools have put the safety of students first, have steadfastly denounced the act and have investigated transparently in cooperation with community and media. 

But keeping in mind those who have courageously stood up to say, "That's enough" and those taking it upon themselves to demand a safer school climate, we have a message for schools tasked with protecting and empowering all students but who have decided to shirk responsibility and look the other way: 

Do better. 

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