Responding to Hate and Bias at School
Section Two: When There's a Crisis
What Has Happened?
A Latino student and an Asian student have an argument that escalates into screamed slurs and a physical scuffle, observed by more than 50 classmates.
An opposing football team refuses to take the field against a team that has a female player, saying girls have no place in “boys’ sports.”
Students play an off-campus game called “Beat the Jew,” in which some students pretend to be Nazis chasing the student identified as “the Jew.”
A teacher discovers a “burn” page on Facebook filled with endless bigoted comments against a male student who is perceived to be gay.
A student white-pride group disrupts an all-school photograph.
A pep rally involves students portraying illegal immigrants, while other students costumed as border guards round them up with billy clubs.
A teen girl kills herself after unrelenting bullying targeted her as a “slut.”
Hate crimes and bias incidents happen across the country with aggravating frequency. They vary on many levels, and your response must take that into account.
So what has happened?
Is it a hate crime? For that to be the case, two things are necessary. First, a crime has to have occurred—vandalism, physical assault, arson and so on. Second, the crime must be motivated, in whole or in part, by bias, and the targeted individual or group must be listed in the statutes as a protected class. Federally protected classes are race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. State and locally protected classes vary.
If no crime has occurred—and again, that may be difficult to determine at the outset—it likely can be called a bias incident. (It may more aptly be labeled harassment or intimidation, and school policy might come into play.) A bias incident is biased conduct, speech or expression that has an impact but does not involve criminal action.
Reread the opening list of school incidents—drawn from recent headlines—as an exercise to make these distinctions. With limited information, answers may vary, but it will help to discern where one definition ends and the other begins. The University of Chicago also offers an online guide to help discern between hate crimes and bias incidents. Learning for Justice is also a partner with Stop the Hate, which offers training programs tied to these issues.
Why does this distinction matter? A hate crime likely will involve law enforcement. A bias incident likely will not.
The investigative force behind a hate crime may be focused on motivation and punishment—who did this, why did they do it, and how will they be brought to justice? That may not be your main objective as an administrator—and in most cases should not be your main objective. Your focus should remain on addressing the impact of the incident, not its motivation. How has the school climate been damaged? What must we do to repair and improve that climate?
You likely will have less control in managing the incident if police are involved, but you may have more resources available—patrolling in and around the school, community resource officers, increased investigatory capabilities and so on.
Already, in the first moment, framing a response is not easy. That’s why this guide exists. In it, we outline nine key considerations as you chart your course during a bias crisis:
- Put safety first
- Denounce the act
- Involve others
- Work with the media
- Provide accurate information—and dispel misinformation
- Support targeted students
- Seek justice, avoid blame
- Promote healing
Before you move to these steps—which are much more simultaneous than linear—ask yourself another question: What resources do we have in place to manage our responses?
Does the district have legal or security personnel who will be called to help with the investigation? Who will serve as the media spokesperson? Does anyone have experience in that role (talking to media about sensitive issues, training in crisis management)? Who else needs to be involved in the school, at the district level, in the community?
Start creating a list of resources you have (a written school lockdown policy that may come into play, a designated phone line that can be used to share updates with parents, neighboring Boys & Girls Clubs of America that might provide meeting spaces and so on), making connections that will help you move forward. Your resource list should include people as well—influential community members who may serve as allies in a crisis.
Now also is the time to activate the incident response team. You can start small—draw in a handful of key people—but know that as the response unfolds, the team may grow so that it is both representative of and responsive to the school community.
(Now also is the time to be thankful for any of the precrisis work you have put into play. You can’t truly plan for the specificity of this moment, but you can be better prepared.)
And as the school administrator, steel yourself for the following:
Bad news travels fast—and far—these days.
Gossip and rumor, aided by cell phones and the Internet, spreads throughout your school, to other schools, other cities, other states and other nations within hours, if not moments. Things may escalate far more quickly than you expect via social media outlets, mainstream media and, in some cases, on hate groups’ websites, which may twist the facts and create new issues to address.
You are the hub.
In a crisis moment, you have less time to think and plan than you would like, and students, teachers, staff and others will be coming to you for immediate guidance. It also means you may be getting calls from the superintendent, the mayor’s office, community groups and the media before you have had a chance to gather a full report about what has actually happened on your campus.
Judgments will be rushed.
The wider community may already have taken sides and formed opinions before anyone fully understands the situation. It is imperative for you to have structures and plans in place for crisis management, specifically around information management and the dispelling of rumors.
Balance the desire for speed with the need for thoroughness.
Don’t let the chaos of a crisis situation derail your work. Focus on what needs to be done, and make sure you don’t allow someone else’s deadline to distract you from the work needed to manage this crisis. Be ready to say, “We don’t have enough information yet to make that determination,” while also understanding that the longer it takes to gather that information, the more misinformation may grow and spread.
Use or create tools to spread accurate information.
You may add a special page to the school website where updates are placed. Email also can be a useful tool for sending updates, though remember that everyone might not have access to email. A campus newsletter or newspaper also can be a tool for spreading accurate information about the incident and the ongoing investigation.