A white art teacher in Houston uses the N-word during a classroom lesson. A high school student in Minnesota tells a Black classmate that her dark skin is ugly and that she hopes she takes her life. An Asian-American teen in California’s San Fernando Valley is attacked because his peers assumed, based on his ethnicity, that he was carrying COVID-19.
These are not just cherry-picked headlines. At my own school district in Minneapolis, where I serve as a counselor, incidents related to hate, bias and interpersonal violence have been climbing since the pandemic began. Every week brings about another hatefully charged social media post or classroom exchange.
Although our public health organizations were able to come up with vaccines to combat the coronavirus, our schools have unfortunately not been able to address the explosion of hate and bias incidents spreading in our schools and communities. Over the past few years, American youth have seen unarmed people of color publicly murdered. They’ve followed news stories and seen video clips of an insurrection at the nation’s capital. And they’ve lived through what is arguably the most divisive political climate in recent memory.
No person is born with hate and bias toward someone that looks or talks or acts different from them. These behaviors and beliefs are learned, and they can be unlearned, too. According to Diane Hughes, a professor of applied psychology at New York University, “It’s well established that there’s no biological basis for race.”
Comments, cues and context clues from adults and peers have a tremendous impact on how youth socialize with people of different backgrounds. If youth are hearing demeaning, negative narratives about certain groups, they may internalize and repeat those ideas. If not countered or met with a more authentic narrative, those ideas can, in time, lead to patterns of hate and biased behavior.
A bias incident is defined as any hostile expression that may be motivated by another person’s race, color, disability, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity. These incidents can happen in classrooms, bathrooms, on TikTok and in the hallways.
In 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center conducted research on more than 800 hate and bias incidents and reported that “two-thirds of educators had witnessed a hate or bias incident in school and two-thirds of the incidents were racially motivated.” The hate, violence and racism we are seeing, increasingly, in our schools mirror what is happening more broadly in our society. There were 7,759 reported hate crimes in the U.S. in 2020—the most in 12 years, according to the FBI.
These hate and bias incidents, paired with the stressors brought on by the pandemic, can cause serious mental, social, emotional and college-and-career readiness challenges for youth. But as I’ve learned in my experience as an African-American school counselor, if we instead build and foster cross-cultural connections with students, they can learn, grow and develop a deeper understanding of themselves and each other.
The Role of Educators in Combating Hate and Bias
The good news is our educators are not helpless to address hate and bias incidents. Part of the job of being an educator is creating a learning environment where students can be their authentic selves and feel welcomed and affirmed.
Students are developing in their cross-cultural journeys and are watching how educators address hate and bias incidents, so it is critical that educators model how to disrupt hate and bias patterns and learn how to empathize and show humility to people who are different from them.
Every person in the school building has a part to play in combating hate and bias incidents in their school. It all begins with doing the internal, self-reflection work. Self-reflection in this context means examining and understanding your own identities and how you socialize in the world. In addition, it means growing a deeper awareness of your privileges and biases and how they may show up. This is not easy work by any means, and it can be met with defensiveness, discomfort and other revelations once you begin to gain awareness. Pushing through those challenging feelings and having humility and a desire to learn is part of the growing process.
School staff must continually reflect, self-audit, and be aware of their own biases, beliefs and actions in schools. We all have them—self-reflection is an ongoing process, and school administrators should prioritize training to support educators through this growth.
If we are going to reduce hurtful words and actions in school, we need to make a commitment personally to speak up when we see or hear it. This can be challenging for some, especially educators who prefer to avoid conflict or who worry they won’t say the “right” thing. Part of doing the hard personal work is getting over our own fragility, especially in the moments where it can be easier to stay quiet than to speak up and make things uncomfortable. In our current culture, silence is compliance, so it is essential that we speak up.
Growing in our cross-cultural skills is a lifelong endeavor, and school is the perfect place to begin this work. Not only will building cross-cultural connections reduce hate and bias incidents in school, but it will eventually contribute to more inclusive communities, workspaces and families.
Setting and Following a Plan
Each year, school leaders prepare for emergencies by planning routine fire drills, simulated lockdowns and tornado drills and more. Just like we plan for those major disruptive physical events, schools must have a comprehensive, proactive plan to respond when hate and bias incidents happen in the school.
Hate and bias incidents can be more challenging to detect compared to other disruptive events because of their pervasive nature, but the impact is just as damaging, if less outwardly visible. Having a plan for responding to hate and bias incidents should be seen by administrators and school support as a form of social-emotional safety plan for your school.
Too often, planning is reactive, beginning after the incident has already occurred and the school environment is reeling. Educators find themselves looking to administrators for direction while administrators are busy navigating concerned families, frazzled students and sometimes the media. When left with no answers and a sense of collective hurt, students at times come together and lead peaceful demonstrations in the school to voice their feelings.
As a counselor at Champlin Park High School in Minnesota, a school of 3,000 students, I witnessed hundreds of hurt and frustrated students peacefully sit in the hall at noon one fall day to unite against racism after a hateful social media post had been made. In my conversations with students and at the peaceful protest, the message I heard was of the shared need for education and to unite as one Champlin Park.
A proactive approach that includes dedicated time to brainstorm questions, discuss scenarios and decide upon a plan that can be iterated on is more effective. Listening to student and family voices, particularly those from racially marginalized communities, and creating school-wide next-step goals for unity is critical for schools looking to reduce hate and bias in their school.
One resource that we have found helpful in Minneapolis is a comprehensive plan from Learning For Justice called, “Responding To Hate And Bias Incidents.” This resource provides strategies for school leaders to evaluate the school social environment, outline a response plan should a hate event occur, and take ongoing steps to move your school toward unity. This year at Northeast Middle School, when negative words were used, one of the school counselors was able to utilize the document as a starting point for planning schoolwide conversations, beginning that very next morning.
With the ongoing pandemic, plus recent racial and social and political conflicts, families are expecting school leaders to have the skillset to communicate factual information and address challenging topics in a timely manner and relying on educators to come alongside them to process these events. That requires thoughtful planning in advance.