Hate at School: May 2019

Racist yearbook photos and “promposals” gone wrong are among this month’s hate incidents that marked the end of the school year.
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As schools across the United States wound down for the summer, they continued to see hate and bias incidents happen on and off campus in May. We counted 75 reported incidents in 29 states and Washington, D.C. This is on par with the 72 we saw in May 2018.

Here is what we observed in the reports from news media last month: 

  • Most of the incidents (43) were racist, while 16 were antisemitic. Antisemitism manifested primarily through the display of swastikas.
  • There were three anti-LGBTQ incidents, including one that was transphobic. 
  • There were four anti-immigrant incidents and one targeting a student’s ability. 


The N-word and Racist Mocking

This month’s report is in keeping with a pattern we typically see each month—most are racist in nature. There were plenty of adults perpetrating this hate. For example, in Peters Township, Pennsylvania, a school board member was censured after making several racist posts on Facebook, including a link to an article titled “10 Things That Would Instantly Happen If All Negroes Left America.” He wrote this above that linked article: “Crime in the Burgh would go down for sure.”

In May, we also saw the n-word used in nine incidents. People overheard teachers saying the n-word in three different Minnesota schools: one in Apple Valley and the other two in St. Paul. 

A Dumas, Arkansas, high school head football coach was fired after sending a racist text to a black parent. The message “I hate [n-words]!” was sent to the mother of an athlete, followed by what seemed to be an attempt to correct it. “OMG so sorry I meant to say beggars,” the next message read. The exchange occurred as the parent was informing the coach that her son was overlooked at a sports banquet. The coach apologized for the oversight but sent the offensive text a few minutes later. Some people speculate that this message was meant for someone else. 

At a Denton, Texas, high school, an assistant principal was fired for saying the n-word to a black student. He lost his job less than two weeks later. Students said the coach told a black student who was playing music to turn down “that [n-word] music.”

Another student at the school hinted there was a culture of racism there. “I think that they should evaluate the entire school staff,” he told a local news outlet.

School and district leaders and staff weren’t the only ones performing racist acts. For Jersey Day during a Houston-area high school’s rising senior spirit week, about 30 white juniors wore cornrows, over-sized NBA jerseys, baggy shorts, face tattoos and handcuffs. Many students dubbed it “thug day,” sparking outrage online and on social media, as the students seemed to mock black people.


Yearbook and Prom

The end of the school year often means a relaxed climate. Those end-of-year days may also yield more trouble and disregard for established policies. 

In at least two schools, administrators decided to reprint yearbooks that had initially contained racist language or gestures. 

At a high school in St. Paul, Minnesota, a yearbook photo from a football game included a student wearing blackface—an event that had already outraged other students, their families and community members. When the picture ended up in the yearbook, community members responded via petition, demanding an anti-racism policy, victim-centered support and changes to the curriculum to reflect diverse races and ethnicities, among other adjustments. Hundreds of people signed the petition. Another problematic yearbook inclusion—a photo of a map with pictures of black students and the caption “Negro Hill”—circulated on social media. 

And at an Oak Park, Illinois, high school, administrators also had to reprint yearbooks when they found racist hand gestures in several photos. The gesture was an upside-down “OK” symbol, which is used by white nationalist groups.

Prom season also had its share of hate and bias incidents. At least four prom proposals that contained racist language made news coverage in May. For example, in Pleasantville, New York, a senior and his friends were banned from the prom after displaying a sign that read, “If I was black, I’d be picking cotton, but I’m white so I’m picking you for the prom.” 

Three similar prom proposals—and subsequent backlash—happened at schools in Texas, Ohio and California. 


Other Types of Hate and Bias

Racism wasn’t the only issue disrupting school communities in May. For example, when a slur was used to describe transgender people during a recent middle school musical production in Lenox, Massachusetts, it prompted a push for diversity education measures among district administrators, staff and students. 

Anti-immigrant sentiment continues to be a problem in American schools, too. In Phoenix, Arizona, a student using an anonymous account posted a tweet regarding a senior prank that would target immigrants. It read, “ATTENTION ALL SENIORS: New senior prank will be happening next Monday morning at 7:30 in the parking lot. We will be acting like the front gate is the border into Mexico. We will have cops searching cars, window washers, and people selling tortillas and…”

In Fort Worth, Texas, a teacher was fired after she tweeted anti-immigrant remarks. Believing she was tweeting directly at President Donald Trump, she asked that he remove “illegal students” and “Mexicans” from her school, which is 90 percent Latinx. 

The incidents in Phoenix and Fort Worth serve as reminders that all students, regardless of citizenship status, deserve an education, and that right is protected by the Constitution. Read “This Is Not a Drill” to learn how to support students from immigrant families. 


Ongoing Issues

We found a common theme among many of the reports: Students, families or community members suggesting that incidents of hate and bias are a recurring problem. They often point to complaints that go unheard. 

At a middle school in Missoula, Montana, racist bullying and hate speech targeting black and biracial students is growing, according to the school’s principal. 

A school district in Rockville, Maryland, is finally addressing religious and racial discrimination against a bus driver who had been taunted by students and colleagues for 13 years because he wears a turban and a long beard. He had reported 21 separate incidents in a five-year period. In a lawsuit, the driver says students and colleagues have called him derogatory names, such as “terrorist” and “Taliban.”

In Newport Beach, California, students participated in a private Instagram group chat that featured racist messages. In the exchange, a student talked about buying a Confederate flag, and another student jokingly asked if black people were still enslaved in Southern states. The incident happened just two months after an off-campus party during which students from the school and two other schools were pictured performing Nazi salutes over a beer-pong swastika.

Disruptive behavior, racist taunts and threats during basketball games created such an unsafe environment that one school in Murray, Utah, no longer wants to compete against a team in nearby Tabiona. Fans have been heard saying, “Blackie go home” to the African American coach and “Get the [f------ n-word] out of here” when a black player was ejected from a game for responding to the fans’ taunts. The school filed a complaint with the Utah High School Activities Association. The other team filed a counter-complaint, resulting in both schools being penalized. 

The African American coach was placed on probation and received a two-game suspension for his part in the ongoing situation. After being taunted by a Tabiona player, he grabbed the player’s hand and said, “You’re not about that life.” The association ordered the team from Tabiona to request that the fan making racist statements not attend games for a year.


What School Communities Must Do

It’s imperative that school leaders work with students, families and community members to ensure schools are safe, inclusive and just environments—and that they address hate and bias incidents before they fester into ongoing issues that cause lasting harm. Our guide Responding to Hate and Bias at School is an excellent place to start. This resource helps schools be proactive and provides advice and direction for overcoming harmful experiences in the school community. 

As another school year ends, this is a good time to regroup and think about strategies that will safeguard students and prepare them to create a world that values diversity, inclusion and respect for differences. 

Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.

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