Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

An Open Letter to School Principals

Dear School Principals,

Parents tend to get excited about the start of a new school year. We’re ready for our kids to be back in the swing of learning. But there’s an issue we need to talk about before the school year begins.

We know principals are juggling lots of moving parts, academic and administrative, before the hallways get filled with children. Teachers are working on learning new ways to help their students achieve higher goals. School staff may be planning ways to deal with the traumas students bring with them and looking for additional resources to better serve them. And that’s not to mention the hiring, budgeting and scheduling that come together at the last minute.

We know that among your top priorities is to keep the young people in your charge safe -- physically, emotionally and socially. Many of us say a prayer when we send our children into those buildings. Every mass shooting brings another wave of fear.

This year, we have another urgent plea: Please pay attention to the world outside the school building and think about how it’s going to impact the students you serve. You know as well as we do that bullying related to race and ethnicity has increased since the last presidential election. Students have parroted hateful language as taunts on playgrounds, and racial slurs have shown up in students’ social media feeds. Studies are starting to bear out the stories from families who have experienced this fallout firsthand.

Researchers studied the rate of bullying in middle schools in Virginia and found that in 2017 teasing and bullying were significantly higher in schools located in districts that had voted for Donald Trump compared with districts that had voted for Hillary Clinton. This difference in the rate of bullying based on districts’ voting patterns didn’t exist before the last election. This upcoming election season is shaping up to be even worse.

Some of your students will bear the brunt of this politicized rhetoric.

Your students of color walk into their classrooms knowing that a white supremacist just massacred 22 people in El Paso. When one of their classmates uses the “n-word,” or draws a swastika on a bathroom stall or says “go back to where you came from,” think for a moment how that might feel against this backdrop.

In addition to insulting, it may feel threatening. Unsafe.

We know privacy laws prevent you from discussing consequences when students are disciplined, but have you thought of ways to address the incidents that hurt a community without singling out a specific child? When principals refuse to name or discuss these problems it feels like they are being swept aside, that the safety of some kids isn’t really a priority. When principals refuse to act by saying an incident happened “outside of school hours,” it sounds like a cop-out.

You are responsible for setting the tone of the school’s culture, and most schools teach values like respect and responsibility. When those values are tested this year, we want to hear you clearly say: This is hateful and racist. This is hurtful. This is not who we want to be.

How will you use these moments to teach the aggressor empathy and help him or her understand why these words and actions are destructive? If their parents push back, will you have the courage to stand up for what you know is right?

I believe most educators get into this profession because they care deeply about students. And in this time of deep division and rising acts of bigotry, we need to hear louder voices from the principals who lead our nation’s schools.

It takes courage to admit that adults may also say things they shouldn’t. It takes heart to recognize the hurt when a student or parent shares such an incident. The way you respond will reverberate throughout the school. Others will take their cue from you.

Teachers will watch how you respond. Students who want to be allies for their friends will watch how you respond. Parents will watch how you respond.

We are trusting you to know that racist harassment hurts more than the person targeted. It hurts the entire community.

Every student should know their principal has their back.

We are counting on your courage.