When I heard that an image of an assistant principal in my child’s school had been labeled with the n-word in a student’s Instagram video, it stung. We know there’s been a spike in hate crimes and bigotry in schools over the past three years.
When it involves someone you know, it becomes personal.
I didn’t hear about the incident through any official school communication. It’s usually the grapevine that spreads this sort of news. I called school officials to ask how it was handled. But due to privacy laws, the district cannot share information about specific punishments.
I get that.
The post was taken down, I was told, and there were consequences given. I wondered why this felt insufficient. What role should schools take in combating a rising tide of bigotry that reflects what we are witnessing in society at large? How should they address issues that more often arise on social media, outside of school buildings?
First, let’s begin by calling it what it is.
In a note that went out to teachers about a racist incident that occurred over spring break, Parkway Superintendent Keith Marty described the situation as “racially charged.” Many other districts across the region that have dealt with similar issues have used this term to describe the behavior in question. I asked Marty about this choice of words.
To him, the phrase denoted the impact felt by those targeted by the behavior.
“I’m not trying to diminish it,” he said. But to me, it sounds like mincing words to avoid calling a spade a spade.
I’ve had this same difficult conversation in my own newsroom. Recently, the Associated Press offered clarity on the issue. The AP Stylebook now advises journalists not to use euphemisms for “racist,” like “racially charged” or “racially tinged.”
You can’t confront a problem until you recognize it for what it is. This is especially true when trying to educate students on how to thrive in a diverse society. It’s also important for schools to communicate with parents when hateful incidents are reported and investigated because the impact is felt by minority students collectively. A reluctance to talk publicly about these issues suggests a reluctance to admit bigotry is a serious problem.
A parent in Missouri’s Webster Groves School District shared her frustration over how anti-Semitic incidents that happened last year were handled. Yael Shomroni, who is Jewish, criticized school officials who referred to swastikas as “graffiti.” She said the stories from students who witnessed anti-Semitic or racist acts were brushed under the rug with an unwillingness to confront them publicly.
“The parents don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable to talk about.”
The district brought in the Anti-Defamation League for training, developed lessons on hate speech and discrimination, and created groups for students to discuss issues related to equity and inclusion.
“We’ve tried to create venues and opportunities both in structured and unstructured ways,” said John Simpson, Webster Groves superintendent. “We are talking about it because we are not there yet. Like our peer districts and the rest of the world, we have a long way to go.”
But they are making a systematic effort going forward, he said. School officials in several St. Louis-area districts have committed to hearing the concerns of students sharing what they have experienced and seen.
A way to heal and reduce future such incidents is by turning that listening into action. It’s by helping the rest of the student body understand why racist and bigoted language, symbols and acts are hurtful and unacceptable.
Young people have a way of reflecting the same messages they hear at home, in the media, from politicians, in the culture.
Schools need to be braver in pushing back.