What to Do About Hate Crimes in Our Schools

February 8 2017


  • William Grace Frost, Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters
    William Grace Frost
    Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters

A quick internet search brings up multiple headlines detailing the rise in hate crimes purportedly committed all across America since the conclusion of our presidential election, and in particular, the impact on our school campuses…

  • Bullying in schools is out of control since Election Day: How the toxic rhetoric of the campaign has seeped into America's classrooms -  Mother Jones, 11-16-16
  • Racist incidents are up since Donald Trump's election - TIME, 11-13-16
  • Make America white again: Hate speech and crimes post-election -  CNN, 12-22-16

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), there were 867 cases of hateful harassment or intimidation in the United States in the 10 days after the November 8 election. This escalation in reported incidents has primarily targeted people of color, Muslims, immigrants, the LGBT community and women. Young people have also interpreted the new order as license to plaster bathroom walls and cafeterias with swastikas, harass women wearing hijabs and sexually assault female classmates in broad daylight.

And it’s just as easy to find and validate reported occurrences of President Trump’s supporters being berated, accosted and demeaned as it is to find verifiable reports of such activities being committed by them. For example, a recent Washington Post article described an anti-Trump walkout at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., where a 15-year-old student wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat was sent to the hospital with injuries inflicted by classmates who kicked and punched him to the ground. And in a November 2016 Forbes article, the author described an incident near Houston, where an 11-year-old boy wound up on crutches after admitting to classmates that he had voted for Trump in their school’s mock election.

Regardless of who is demeaning, vilifying or hurting whom, it’s clear that our children have not gone unscathed in the current political climate. Bullying and cyber-bullying, already a major problem in America’s schools, have now been exacerbated by an elevated awareness in student’s minds of homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny and xenophobia. Just like the rest of us, young people are trying to make sense of what they’ve heard and seen in the “adult world”, and they’re acting out from a place of confusion, frustration, fear and heightened stress.

What to do about hatred in schools?

Regardless of the cause, the political atmosphere, or the times, we believe that the solution to students acting out is exactly what it’s always been – trusted adult staff who extend themselves to help students feel connected and cared for, and engaged, empowered students who feel confident and competent to safely, effectively and courageously intervene when they see or hear incidents of meanness – whether that meanness manifests as sarcasm, bullying, isolationism, harassment or hatred.

As educators and caring adults, we’re always looking for ways to reduce students’ negative behavior and to make our schools safer for all. What we have often failed to recognize is that student empowerment is the most effective strategy for reaching these desired outcomes. Having students be the “change agents and peace makers” on school campuses goes a long way to optimizing the conditions for proactive, positive behavior to occur.

In far too many schools, students play a passive role, being treated as consumers, rather than contributors. Many studies support our experience which has shown that when given the opportunity, support, and necessary skills, most young people are ready and eager to speak up and intervene in situations of hatred and violence, rather than condoning the behavior by being passive bystanders.

Let’s imagine our schools as places where students are treated as allies, working with adults to create campuses where every student feels welcome, safe, connected and included, and empowered to help reduce hate crimes and other heinous mistreatment. Shifting the trend that adds hatred on top of more hatred begins with making our school climates more compassionate, kind and welcoming. This begins with comprehensive youth empowerment – cultivating empathy and a fundamental belief in the inherent worth of each person, and in the ability of every person to accomplish great things if provided the proper training, tools and modelling.

For more information on our programs and services to empower young people in your schools and communities, please contact us at Community Matters.

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