As an administrator, it is your responsibility to remain calm, firm and deliberate as you gather the facts surrounding a potential bias-based incident. Don’t let others’ passions distract you from this task, and don’t let the rushed feeling of a crisis force you into making hasty judgments. Empower the incident response team to carry out a thorough investigation, and provide resources to support it.
Take note: While it is necessary to be alert to bias or bigotry in any student conflict, it is also important not to jump to conclusions before facts are gathered. Not every conflict involving students of different races is motivated by racial bias, for example. A premature conclusion could fuel racial tension rather than ease it.
Also, maintain perspective. Particularly among younger students, someone may make bigoted comments or carry out other apparent acts of bias without understanding the full significance of his or her actions. Approach each incident with an open mind, and ask questions to determine whether a student was acting out of ignorance rather than malice. That understanding will help you frame your response to the incident.
Understand that hoaxes sometimes happen. Individuals may fabricate reports of bias incidents. This kind of deception can reflect a variety of motivations, including malicious mischief, a desire to call attention to oneself or, ironically, a wish to bring attention to an issue such as the need for a stronger school policy on harassment. When genuine bias incidents go unaddressed, a student may exaggerate or make up false incidents—writing hate notes to oneself, for example—to prompt a response from school officials. These offenses need to be taken seriously, and appropriate consequences should be enforced, but a fabricated incident may also indicate that related issues have not been fully examined within the school.
Here are additional considerations:
- Be up-to-date on district policies and legal protocols and discuss them with district legal counsel and law enforcement officials, if the latter are involved.
- Let the campus know that you (or the police, if that is the case) are in a fact-gathering mode. If you are silent at this point, some may assume you are doing nothing to address the incident.
- Give a sense of expected duration of the fact-gathering phase. “For the next two days, we will be gathering facts about this incident. I will share specific news as it becomes available. In the meantime, please come to me, or to any member of the staff, with information or concerns you may have.”
- Conduct individual interviews with eyewitnesses as soon as possible to collect fresh recollections, emphasizing that the main goal is the protection of the school community. Hold these interviews in a secure place that doesn’t put eyewitnesses at additional risk. Ask witnesses to help identify others who may have information.
- Understand that eyewitness accounts will vary, and not all witnesses will feel safe in coming forward. Talk to as many people as possible in order to better understand what happened.
- If the incident was caught on school security cameras, review the video to see if it helps to clarify what happened or assists in identifying potential witnesses.
- Investigate the incident with an eye toward whether it is part of a larger pattern. Does a hostile environment exist for some students? Ask members of targeted groups if they are surprised by this incident and whether similar incidents have happened. Ask whether the school leaders’ response is satisfactory, and listen with an open mind if people say it isn’t satisfactory.
- Create a way for witnesses to remain anonymous. People may feel too frightened to identify themselves but may have vital information.
When police are involved, there may be additional concerns regarding the investigation. If individual safety is a factor, for example, then having a visible show of police support might be a calming influence. If, on the other hand, there is a large police response to what is perceived as a relatively minor incident, it could exacerbate tension rather than ease it.
And do not expect police to manage the campus climate. Police investigators are looking to solve a crime. As a campus administrator, one of your key objectives is to repair and improve school climate in the wake of a bias-based crisis; do not neglect that role as you await completion of a police investigation.