Listen, Watch and Learn

Responding to Hate and Bias at School
Section One: Before a Crisis Occurs
Listen, Watch and Learn

When you walk the halls or spend time in the cafeteria—wherever you are on campus—be alert. Are you hearing putdowns and slurs? Do you notice tense or fearful looks between some groups of students? These are early warning signs of potential trouble. Unacknowledged and unchallenged, these attitudes and behaviors can set the stage for worse to come.

Safety, of course, is your first concern. Are direct threats being made? Is danger imminent? These situations may require immediate action. More general, indirect behaviors indicate that there might be a problem with the school’s climate. Is this the type of school you want? Pose that question to students, teachers, parents and staff, and listen closely to the answers.

Take notes. Identify patterns. Be the person who knows what’s really going on at your school.

One more thing: Make sure your staff members exercise the same vigilance in classrooms, playgrounds, the cafeteria, buses—everywhere. Being alert is the responsibility of everyone on campus, and everyone has a duty to report problems they see and hear. Make this an expectation and set up an efficient reporting system, like an anonymous complaint box or a designated staff member. After problems are reported, there must be clear signs of follow-up.

Here’s a checklist to consider as you travel the halls, classrooms and school grounds:

Casual pejoratives. 

Do you hear certain words used regularly in a derogatory manner? That’s so gay. That’s lame. That’s retarded. Is the word “bitch” used casually to label female students? Work to establish a climate where casual slurs are uncommon—and are challenged when they do occur. Speak Up at School offers advice on responding to everyday bias.

School “pride.” 

Do cheers and chants at sporting events focus on positive aspects of your school, or do they demean opponents instead? Chants or taunts based on ethnic stereotypes and socioeconomic differences have no place in an inclusive school community.

Assemblies and holidays. 

Skits and costumes can convey bigoted and stereotypical messages: the “day-laboring Mexican,” students dressed as “rednecks,” people in blackface. Pep rallies, Halloween and other events, like spirit days, can become steeped in stereotypes and bigotry. Set expectations beforehand about appropriate costumes and cultural sensitivity. Discuss the inappropriateness of caricatures or disturbing representations that are rooted in bias and bigotry.

Marginalized students. 

Engage students who appear to be left out in the cafeteria, on the playground or in other school settings. Watch for patterns or changes in the way groups of students are aligned. Check for signs of hostility, depression or a marked change in behavior or academic performance, and reach out to the students’ parents or guardians and/or the school counselor as appropriate. Alienated students—either as individuals or in groups—are more susceptible to bias-based bullying and even to recruitment by gangs and hate groups.

Student recognition. 

How does your school recognize student achievement? Long-standing traditions may contribute to a sense of entitlement among some students, and feelings of frustration or inadequacy in others. Who is spotlighted and who is ignored? Is there a perception—fair or not—that athletes, advanced placement (AP) students and student leaders enjoy privileges or are disciplined less severely for misconduct? Collaborate with students and faculty in developing more egalitarian ways to honor an array of student achievements.

The Anti-Defamation League’s Pyramid of Hate offers a lesson—suitable for older students as well as for professional development—exploring levels of hate and bigotry. This can be helpful in gauging the seriousness of what you might encounter on campus.

Staff lounges. 

How are teachers and other staff talking among themselves when outside of student hearing? Are teachers making negative comments about the “kids from the trailer park?” Are they telling casually bigoted jokes? Model inclusive, nonbigoted behavior yourself, and interrupt moments of bias among staff.

Your own perceptions. 

Pay attention to the comments or complaints you automatically dismiss or discount. Is there a pattern? Is there a gap between your perception of a certain issue (bias-based bullying, for example) and the perception others have of the issue? Explore that with an open mind and a willingness to learn from others.

Involve everyone. 

Every person in the school—from the music teacher who visits twice a week to the newest transfer student—should understand the climate of tolerance at your school. “If you see something, say something” should be the model everyone uses. Let everyone know that incidents and concerns should be reported to school leaders in person or anonymously.

Don’t forget the school bus. 

Speak regularly with bus drivers about what they are seeing and hearing on the buses. Occasionally assign staff to ride buses (or ride the bus yourself ) to monitor behavior and to reinforce to students that the climate of tolerance includes not just the school grounds, but the bus as well.

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