Magazine Feature

Teaching From the Bulls-eye

How to protect your school—and your students—from hateful harassment.
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A Chicago district organizing a district-wide civil rights day is barraged with calls and media coverage protesting its plans.

Schools in Washington, Pennsylvania and New York experience an onslaught of complaints about plans to host events to teach about Black Lives Matter.

An Iowa principal receives death threats after suspending students from three football games for repeatedly sending white supremacist tweets.

What do these situations have in common? In each case, the complaints and harassment were organized by national groups mobilizing individuals from outside the communities where those schools operate. Motivated by a desire to squash diversity efforts and silence upstanding behavior in schools, these groups used intimidation, troll storming and other scare tactics, hoping to disrupt events and thwart school-based efforts to address bias.

These types of orchestrated actions began to pop up across the country in 2016. They are increasing in frequency and severity as white nationalist groups, anti-LGBT organizations and other groups with anti-diversity agendas—including those that embrace the “alt-right” label—have become bolder and more vocal.

When outside groups undermine efforts to create safety and promote inclusion, schools must address risk and fear on top of the risk and fear marginalized students may already be facing. How can school leaders remain steadfast in their values and reassure students and families when their school becomes a target?


Organized Efforts

There’s no doubt that nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments have gained traction in the current political climate. In the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election and since then, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and anti-immigrant incidents have increased, as has the visibility of the individuals and groups perpetrating such incidents. In some cases, the attacks are verbal or virtual; others have escalated to physical violence.

Schools have not been spared. Both individual acts of hate and bias and orchestrated attacks have risen in number and severity over the last 18 months. These attacks are not only disruptive; they can be psychologically devastating.

Consider the example of White Lives Matter, a network of white supremacists with leadership based in Texas, New Hampshire and Georgia. White Lives Matter organized a national effort to harass schools participating in the Rochester School District’s Black Lives Matter Day. The day was intended to, in the words of the district, “affirm the lives of black children, who represent the majority of students we serve, and to promote understanding.” Meanwhile, White Lives Matter organized massive call-in campaigns and even set up online training sessions for its followers.

This was not new territory for White Lives Matter. After targeting one school in Pennsylvania, the group proudly declared a victory, telling its followers that the group’s efforts had successfully divided the staff and “crushed” plans to teach about the Black Lives Matter movement.

In another example, a New York City school received a barrage of harassing phone calls after the press reported that some Muslim students there were encouraging school-wide participation in World Hijab Day. A national media outlet picked up the story, prompting anti-Muslim groups to claim—falsely—that the school was forcing students to practice Islam. The group’s supporters proceeded to flood the school with calls.

In Seattle, one elementary school canceled an event titled “Black Men Uniting to Change the Narrative,” which had been organized to counter negative stereotypes. Officials cited security reasons for the cancellation after details of the event were picked up by the conservative national press, and violent threats from outside the area began rolling in.

For more information about hate groups in your area visit the SPLC Hate Map.

What Can You Do When the Bulls-eye Is You?

Creating schools where students of any identity feel safe, accepted and valued is not a radical or controversial act. But, as these examples and countless others reveal, an increasingly vocal contingent of our society disagrees and is willing to go to extreme lengths to undermine school-based anti-hate and anti-bias efforts.


Before An Attack

An orchestrated protest could happen suddenly; preparation is the key to minimizing potential damage. Take the following steps when planning an event that could be targeted.


Find allies in your community.

Reach out to local social groups. Build relationships with churches, sports teams and other institutions in your area that actively support efforts to promote safety and celebrate diversity. Build trust with groups that may be vulnerable, such as undocumented immigrant families, and organizations that serve them.


Know the landscape of hate.

Be aware of local and national hate groups that actively target schools, and stay current on their activities. Work closely with the legal department of your school district. Know your rights and your students’ rights. Pose scenarios and ask questions so you can understand the legal ramifications of your actions.


Provide training for staff.

Explain what you are doing and why inclusiveness benefits all students. Share your school’s values and connect those values to the action you are taking to create an identity-safe school climate. Make it clear that the planned activity may draw unwanted attention and that school safety is a top priority. Make sure all staff know emergency protocols, including when to inform the principal and when to call the police.


Inform district leaders, the teacher’s union and families in advance.

Being transparent allows you to control the message, builds investment and gives you a foundation to stand on if your plans become twisted or mischaracterized by outside groups. Allow families to ask questions, weigh in on planning and opt their children out of particular activities if they wish. If your district has a communications department, rely on it to help respond to media inquiries. Seek additional security when needed.


Prepare remarks and talking points in advance.

Be ready to issue a statement articulating the school’s values and reiterating your commitment to the event or action. Make sure that all front-office staff members know about the event and have approved talking points or a script on hand in case of media inquiries or questions from callers.


During An Attack

It may begin with one or two calls. Then, suddenly, there are hundreds. Threats begin appearing via social media. Demonstrators gather outside the school. Then the news media show up. What now?


Investigate and document.

Inform the district leadership immediately and involve them in your investigation. Have a system for saving any evidence of the attack, such as phone or electronic messages (including your responses), and make sure that all front-office staff members have been trained on the system. Take pictures of any graffiti, protesters and illegally parked cars.


Report and take down offensive posts.

Social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook have policies for removing offensive posts. Take screenshots before removing them. Block comment sections on articles and inappropriate comments on any of your school’s social media accounts.


Communicate to staff in person.

Hold an emergency meeting to explain what happened and how you are handling it, and listen to concerns. Provide guidance for a unified response. Instruct staff not to engage with attackers via social media or otherwise. Encourage them to refer all inquiries to the communications department (if available) or to the principal.


Provide accurate information and dispel misinformation.

In addition to releasing your prepared statement, take time to quell rumors or misinformation. Inform students and families about the attack through regular secure channels, but don’t overstate the issue or cause alarm. Send an informative message while taking a strong stand in support of your school values and safety. Avoid making comments via social media; they can be misconstrued and inadvertently fuel the fire.


Support the target(s).

If the attack targets particular student groups, bring those students together and give them an opportunity to express their feelings. Let them know that you support them, even after the worst is over. Provide counseling if needed.


Enlist the help of community allies.

Don’t remain silent. Reach out to organizations you’ve built relationships with and ask for their public support. Do the same with community leaders.


Work with the media.

It may be appropriate to arrange a press conference so your district can control public messaging and accurately report what happened. If you have a communications department, work with it to designate appropriate speakers. This may include family members, students or staff who planned the targeted event or activity, allies from the community or other community leaders. Meet with speakers in advance to make sure everyone communicates the same message.


After the Crisis

Talking about it may feel like the last thing anyone wants to do, but after an attack, it is imperative to reflect on what happened and actively look for ways to heal the school.


Debrief the incident.

Gather district and school staff and anyone else closely involved in or affected by the attack. Talk through what happened, and document what you might do differently if it happened again.


Give consequences to students who engage in hateful acts.

Follow district policies, but aim to help students learn from their mistakes and transform attitudes and behaviors. Seek to restore the offenders to the school community while still protecting targeted students.


Work toward healing and reconciliation.

Healing from divisive events takes time. Plan activities that will bring students, staff and families together. Be sure to include families of students who were targeted and of students who participated in the attack. Use restorative practices to unite the school. If necessary, bring in professional mediators.


Recommit to a safe, kind school.

Redouble efforts to improve school climate.

If your school is under attack but your district isn’t giving you the support you need, reach out to these national organizations:

Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law


Public Justice

We Stand Stronger When We Stand Up for Each Other

Anyone who has experienced an orchestrated attack on their school will understand the saying, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” These are complex situations fraught with numerous pitfalls. Making a strong show of support takes coordination and effort, but it will strengthen your school community and prevent future attacks.

When schools stand strong, it sends a message to students and families—and to groups seeking to intimidate: Hatred and intimidation are not welcome here. As this message builds, more institutions across the country will gain the courage to tackle the waves of hate and commit to the democratic ideals of inclusivity and freedom.

Cohn-Vargas is the director of Not In Our School (NIOS) and a national speaker on the subject of school-based bullying. 

When Teachers Come Under Attack

Sometimes, it’s not an activity but a staff member who raises the ire of a group or contingent. When this happens, it might be because the staff member has chosen to engage subject matter the group finds objectionable or because of the identity of the staff member.


It is important that schools stick up for their staff members, even if they don’t always see eye-to-eye. Not doing so sends the message that the school can be bullied into compromising its principles. Encourage all staff to inform their supervisor if they are harassed or made to feel unsafe. The same steps that can prepare for an attack on the school can help school leadership prepare for attacks on individual staff members.


It may be that someone from inside the school is part of the problem. Give employees information about the complaint process and access to your school board’s harassment policies. Additionally, make sure that all school and district leaders know that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from allowing offensive conduct, racial or ethnic slurs, racial “jokes,” or other verbal or physical conduct based on an employee’s race or gender. It also protects against retaliation for reporting the offensive conduct.


If you are a teacher who is not being supported by your administrators, consult your union and consider going to the district level or filing an official complaint.

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