People refer to them as incidents or pranks or misbehavior. Let’s be clear: They are poisonous expressions of hate. At school, these acts should move school leaders to act decisively to restore the school community. Sadly, that isn’t the usual response.
Teaching Tolerance has counted news reports of over 90 episodes of hate, mainly involving high schools, from 30 states in October 2017 alone.
The hate was targeted mainly at black people (64 incidents) through racial slurs and references to slavery; in two incidents nooses were hung as visual warnings. About 20 of the vitriolic assaults were anti-Semitic, usually delivered via a swastika scratched in a bathroom or painted on a school wall, but sometimes with Nazi salutes. In one case, a Post-it note on a locker threatened, “Jews will burn.” White supremacy, in the guise of KKK references or hostile displays of the Confederate flag (accompanied by racist messages), popped up in 15 of the stories. You can add in a sprinkling of anti-Muslim acts (2), the beating of a Sikh boy and several threats against LGBT students (4).
Don’t expect it to add up neatly: Many of the demonstrations mixed the hate messages in a toxic cocktail. For example, a rap video produced and posted on social media by a student at an Alabama high school contains a raft of obscenities and targets gay people and African Americans. After rapping about LGBT kids and musing that “perhaps mass genocide is the only answer,” the video’s maker also suggests that Dr. King’s “only dream” should have been “picking cotton.”
Before you do the math and think that this is, in the grand scheme of things, a small number, keep in mind that it’s not the entire picture. TT uses Google alerts designed to search for news stories with specific words, like school, swastika, KKK or the n-word. If the story doesn’t contain the right combination of words, it doesn’t get captured. More important, if the story never makes it to the media, we never see it. Prior experience tells us that most of these incidents are cleaned up and taken care of at school and never find their way into the light.
Because they take place on social media or in public places, like football stadiums, many of the stories do emerge. In nearly 30 instances we tracked, the racist messages appeared on Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms. Like the video from Alabama, these posts raced around their communities. They included the photo of Pennsylvania high school students beaming behind their pumpkins carved with “KKK.” Or the Utah high school girls, all white, some cheerleaders, chanting “f*k n-word” in a video. In Virginia, a group of boys posted images of themselves in homemade Klan costumes and making Nazi salutes. The white members of a football team, also in Virginia, thought it would be fun to video themselves holding down black members of the team, while simulating sexual acts and shouting racial slurs.
Football—and homecoming season—provides fertile ground for hate. Sometimes, the perpetrators aren’t students. In Louisiana, a black student-athlete took a knee on the field during the anthem; the referee called him the n-word. When a coach realized that a player on the opposing team lived with his two lesbian mothers, he instructed his team to taunt the player on the field with “Where’s your daddy?” The coach has been fired. In Maryland, a student wearing a T-shirt featuring both Trump and the Confederate flag harassed black students while other fans chanted obscenities at the opposing teams’ fans. In New Hampshire, students held up the “flag” of Kekistan, an “alt-right” symbol, during a pep rally. In Pennsylvania, middle school students hurled racial slurs at the opposing team’s cheerleaders and, later, joined adults in throwing stones at their bus.
kek: A stand-in for “lol” or “laugh out loud” borne from the video game World of Warcraft, in which typing “lol” to the Horde faction will result in this translation. Members of the alt-right will sometimes joke that they belong to a religion called Kek or the Cult of Kek.
Learn more about “alt-right” symbols and terms here.
Word gets out, often because students who don’t share the hate take a screen shot and report it. Word gets out despite efforts of some school officials to hide behind FERPA, the federal law designed to protect the privacy of children. If you’ve read about similar incidents, you’ll recognize the words when the privacy curtain is drawn: “We do not comment on individual discipline because of privacy laws.”
Of course, students who perpetrate these acts shouldn’t have their names released to the media. And, unless someone has been harmed or school safety is in danger, the incidents should be handled within the larger school community—including families—rather than being referred to the justice system, as administrators did in about a dozen cases.
No one envies the school leaders faced with responding to these events. On one hand, families of those targeted demand strong measures, running from expulsion to arrest. Others will minimize or even defend the behavior, like the California mom who excused her son’s Confederate flag T-shirt, one that other students objected to, by saying, “Everyone learns history differently.” In another Confederate flag case, the superintendent characterized it as an “ill-considered decision” that was an “unfortunate disruption.”
Some leaders try to strike a balance. In Iowa, another black football player who took a knee was targeted on Snapchat. Alongside his photo was a comment from a classmate, “Kick this f*king n-word off the football team like honestly who the f*k kneels for the national anthem.” The superintendent denounced the post but diluted his outrage by upholding the First Amendment rights of students in the same statement.
Worse is when school leaders wash their hands of a situation because it is out of their legal jurisdiction. It’s true that students have First Amendment rights and that schools are not able to punish them for what they do and say on social media. Technically, the Alabama official faced with the “horrible” video was telling the truth when he said that it took place off campus and that school leaders “can’t do anything.” But he’s looking at the situation through one lens only, a punitive one.
Leaders can do something. An entire group has been targeted and is harmed. Every student who attends the school feels tarred. Administrators have a moral authority to denounce the hate in clear terms and do something to make sure the school is, truly, welcoming. They can take a page from Wilton, Connecticut, superintendent Kevin Smith, who responded to swastikas and the “Jews will burn” Post-it by calling the incident reprehensible and adding, “We need to acknowledge the pain and suffering it has caused.”
October’s news brought stories of many principals and superintendents—about 30 altogether—who were transparent with students, families and other members of the school community. Often, they followed the advice we laid out in Responding to Hate and Bias at School:
1. Tell people what happened and how you’ve handled it.
2. Denounce the act.
3. Lift up the values of the school.
4. Attend to the victims.
Many of them devoted classroom time to discussions, connected with local groups like the NAACP or the Anti-Defamation League, and rolled up their sleeves for the work ahead.
That still leaves two-thirds whose response simply doesn’t measure up. We need to change that story.
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.