Hate and Bias at School: What Happens Now?

by: Amy Melik and Liz Kleinrock

Have you ever done a web search of your district?  What does it say? What is the digital footprint of your district?  This is the way that many prospective families search for areas to live, and you’ll want to make sure that your district is seen in a positive light.  Gathering tools to respond to hate and bias is relevant and imperative to every building that serves students, because it is not a matter of if a hate or bias incident will occur in your district, rather it is when it will happen.  In our current age of digital information, news travels fast and far.  It is in the best interest of your students to have a solid action plan before something happens.

Before a Crisis Occurs

Take a walk around your school environment and complete a school climate walkthrough.  What is your school climate like? Look at tangible places such as near lockers, hallways, playgrounds, the cafeteria and even the staff lounge.  Look at virtual places on various social media channels. Observe conversations that might include name calling, slurs, and casual putdowns.

Walk into a classroom and observe how teachers interact with students during a disagreement.  Educators teach by example, and students pick up on what is not being said.  What words are being used?  What is the tone during a disagreement?

Analyze the systems in your environment.  Think about discipline policies, student recognition, and athletic policies to determine any patterns.  What is the student demographic involved in these areas? Are any student populations being left out or targeted?  Take special note of what happens during spirit days, pep rallies, and how marginalized students are reacting.

Students are savvy and will hear about hate and bias incidents that happen in communities outside of their own.  It’s important to think about how adults are going to discuss these events with students. Be absolutely sure to avoid discussing perpetrator punishment and motives; nobody is in the shoes of the perpetrator, therefore any discussion would be assumption.  Instead, move the conversation to how the students can create an environment in their own sphere of influence where something like this incident would not happen. Discussion that is centered on empathy and support will lead to greater learning and to wonderful teachable moments.  

Utilize these tools to determine whether or not you are prepared to handle a crisis effectively in your school environment from Teaching Tolerance's Responding to Hate and Bias at School:

When There’s a Crisis

Something actually happens at your school.  What do you do? First, determine whether or not it is a hate crime or bias incident.  A hate crime involves a crime like vandalism, assault, or arson that is motivated by bias of a protected class.  If there is no crime, then we can consider this to be a bias incident, harassment, or intimidation. Hate crimes involve law enforcement, whereas the others do not.

It is imperative at this time to support targeted students.  Be sure that these students are physically safe. Be sure to denounce the act publicly and apologize personally.  Targeted students need to know that hate crimes and bias incidents are not their fault, and leaders need to remember to respect privacy.  Everyone has a different way to deal with situations like this. Acknowledge any and all reactions during this time.

Working through a hate crime or bias incident involves direct ties with groups like parents and caregivers, faculty and staff, students, and alumni.  Indirect ties with civic leaders, community organizations, human rights groups, mental health counselors, and faith groups can be an important connection for all involved.

For more tools to use when a crisis like this happens at your school, see these worksheets from Teaching Tolerance's Responding to Hate and Bias at School:

After the Worst is Over

You’ve made it through a hate crime or bias incident in your school environment. Now it’s time to debrief with all involved. Think about students, parents and caregivers, and the community.  How can everyone move forward and heal? What worked well? What can be improved?

Reflect on what happens next.  Examine patterns in discipline referrals, course assignments, and access and equity of opportunities for students.  What can you change to provide access and equity for all?

Review the following document when you meet with everyone involved  from Teaching Tolerance's Responding to Hate and Bias at School:

In Conclusion: Intent vs. Impact

When hate crimes and bias incidents happen within an environment close to you, it may seem like things are out of your control.  Remember that these tools can help you stay organized and moving forward. And while you are in the thick of things, remember the difference between intent and impact.  Sometimes it is easy to dismiss what has happened because the offending group is stating that “they didn’t mean it that way”. For example, a student is called a slur, is hurt, and yet the offender claims that he or she was joking.  If the impact of an incident furthers oppression, then the intent does not matter.  So even if the slur was meant as a joke (intent), the victim was hurt (impact), and therefore it should not be tolerated.

Above all, remember that an equity and anti-bias journey such as this is just that: a journey.  A district is never done with equity work. There is not a simple checklist, but rather it is a lens through which one looks at every system within a school.  We need everyone involved in this journey in order to move forward and continue the work that has been started from a hate or bias incident.

This narrative is based on Teaching Tolerance’s Responding to Hate and Bias at School.

For additional resources, look to these experts in the field:

***Also consider checking out this example of a protocol for responding to hate and bias from Confianza partner district, Needham Public Schools, MA


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