Editor’s note: Because many students with marginalized identities find their bullying or harassment go unreported or unrepresented, we know we are not seeing every incident of hate and bias in U.S. schools. So we’re asking for your help. If you know of a school-based incident of hate or bias, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In March, media outlets reported 35 incidents of hate and bias involving U.S. schools and students. These incidents occurred across 18 states.
This represents the fewest incidents we’ve seen in any month since Teaching Tolerance began our tracking in October of last year. While any decrease is heartening, however, we worry that these numbers do not necessarily indicate an abatement of hate and bias in our schools. Not only did spring break shorten the March school calendar, but both local and national education journalism tilted heavily toward student activism last month as nationwide school walkouts and the March for Our Lives captured the country’s attention.
These numbers do not include the outside harassment faced by student activists this month. While much of that harassment has borne the markings of bias—as evidenced by attacks of Emma Gonzalez based on her ethnicity, sexuality and gender expression—we have restricted our report to incidents directly connected to schools.
The March incidents covered a wide range of biases. Here are some of the trends that stood out:
- More than half (20) took place in high schools.
- More than one-third (12) involved racial slurs—predominately the n-word.
- Michigan produced the most reports of incidents (5), followed by North Carolina (4).
- More than one-fourth (9) of the incidents involved adults.
This last trend proves particularly troubling, as educators and school leaders continue to harm the most vulnerable among their students. In South Carolina, for example, a school board member resigned shortly after social media posts came to light in which he wrote, “The Africans need to be sent back. If history is being rewritten then we go all the way.”
It may start with people in positions of leadership, but similarly hateful comments were also reported from adults who interact with students daily. In Orange County, Florida, a middle school teacher seemed to endorse the white supremacist group Identity Evropa on social media, sharing anti-Muslim sentiments like, “If you think Hurricane Irma is bad, wait till you get a load of Hurricane Allah.”
In Jacksonville, Florida, a middle school math teacher told students, “If your boyfriend says bad things to you and/or treats you wrong, that means he’s acting like a [n-word]. You all should not be dating all these different African-American boys because they are not worth it.” And in Wilmington, Ohio, a wrestling coach outed a transgender male student. He forced the student to change in the girls’ locker room and revealed his identity to the entire team without his consent.
Several educators also displayed an ignorance of history and language that resulted in harmful lessons or assignments. In Gaston County, North Carolina, a first-grade teacher included the word “gook”—a disparaging term referring to people of Southeast Asian descent—on a list of spelling words. In Lynwood, Washington, a fifth-grade teacher assigned homework that asked students to imagine what it would be like to witness Native Americans slaughtering European colonists. One prompt asked students to “[e]xpress your conflicting feelings toward the Indians,” an assignment that a Native student in the class described as “upsetting.”
Last month also provided further evidence of just how necessary our Teaching Hard History materials are. In Ventnor, New Jersey, a fourth-grade teacher told students that “some slave owners were good slave owners and some slaves wanted to be slaves.” There was one black student in the class. And in Rochester Hills, Michigan, a fifth-grade teacher simulated the Middle Passage by having students lie down on the floor. According to one of the four black students in the class, the teacher joined in when other students joked about the exercise.
These incidents show us that students need more adults in positions of power who can help counter a culture of emboldened bias and outward bigotry. Otherwise, apathy can lead to unsafe and uncivil schools, where some students must face their attackers each day.
In Cabarrus County, North Carolina, a student presenting to the class on why the n-word is offensive to black people was told by a peer, “Go back to Africa.” In Roswell, Georgia, a student posted “whites only” signs above water fountains in the school. In Geneseo, New York, an 11-year-old student directed a racial slur at a peer.
Other threats were even more explicit.
In Stanton, Michigan, a black student’s face was edited into a picture of KKK members surrounding a black person. In Ypsilanti, a bomb threat occurred days after an email sent to six black students told them black people should leave the country. And 150 miles to the west, in a boys’ bathroom in Michigan’s Benton Harbor, officials found graffiti stating, “White power is supreme. Just because I didn’t shoot up the school Friday don’t mean I won’t do it just wait. I will light up you black motherf—s! It’s coming.”
Finally, in Alameda, California, two different high schools found threatening graffiti in bathrooms, including one message threatening violence against Muslim students. It was this last incident that revealed a ray of hope: a school leader responding promptly and appropriately, with seriousness. Alameda Unified School District Superintendent Sean McPhetridge wrote a letter to the community denouncing the threat against Muslim students. He wrote, in part:
Today, a few individuals posted disturbing and violent graffiti, frightened their peers, disrupted classes, and distracted staff from being able to support schools and students in other meaningful and valuable ways. That is not powerful. It is not inspiring. Nor is it unusual at this point. …
It is sad that this is our new normal. And yet we can’t ever take it as normal. As district and school administrators, we have to take every threat seriously and respond to it. I wish I could promise to make the threats stop, but I cannot. What I can do is promise that we will continue to work on violence prevention by implementing anti-bias and anti-bullying programs and assessing the mental health and behavioral needs of our students.
We thank McPhetridge and the other school leaders who take this cultural shift seriously—and who have pledged to work tirelessly to provide safer, more inclusive school climates in response to the incidents on their campuses.
In the meantime, we will continue to monitor hate in schools, and work to support educators in preparing all young people to thrive in a diverse democracy.
Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance. To report a hate incident happening at your school or community, email email@example.com.