Mass. State Board Alarmed by Acts Of Hate Groups
Alarmed by the increasing frequency of acts of bigotry in the public schools, the Massachusetts State Board of Education has asked school officials statewide to enforce strict disciplinary measures against students found committing acts that are motivated by racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice.
Commissioner of Education John H. Lawson said in a letter sent last month to local superintendents and school-board members that he is concerned that acts of bigotry and prejudice reported in communities throughout the state reflect a growing trend.
"A very disturbing aspect of these insidious phenomena is the increasing frequency of these acts occurring in the public schools," he wrote.
Mr. Lawson said the problem is likely to continue unless the schools take some steps to counter it.
The concern of Massachusetts officials over racism and ethnic prejudice in the schools is shared by education and civil-rights groups, which report that growing numbers of young people nationwide have been involved in vandalism, break-ins, and other antisocial behavior stemming from bigotry.
Robert Kohler, assistant director for community services for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, said that, in general, his organization has seen an increase in the number of overt acts of anti-Semitism in which young people are involved.
A spokesman for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said that the "preliminary findings" of a report on racism and religious violence attributes much of the trend seen in Massachusetts and in other communities to the country's poor economic conditions and to the high rate of unemployment.
The commission's report, which will be released later this year according to the spokesman, also raises the issue of the Reagan Administration's leadership, which has been charged with insensitivity and a lack of commitment to civil-rights issues.
Dorothy Massie of the National Education Association's (nea) human and civil-rights staff, said that over the past few years "there seems to have been a heightened effort by extremists and violent groups to move onto school campuses."
In Maryland, for example, where there has been a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activity, she said, it has been necessary for the state department of education to assemble a package of instructional materials in order to "improve the climate of the classroom."
Jill Greenberg, a race-equity specialist for the Maryland department of education, said that during the past year racial and ethnically motivated acts in communities throughout the state have quadrupled. She said one school reported the distribution of Klan material on school grounds and at a gathering place for students near the school.
A number of other state education officials contacted last week reported only minor or isolated problems in local school districts. A spokesman for the West Virginia department of education acknowledged, however, that unless an incident becomes a major problem, it might not come to the attention of state education department.
No Upswing in Incidents
Martha Sanders of the West Virginia Human Rights Commission said that while it has noted no upswing in incidents recently, the commission has been receiving a consistent and significant number of complaints about racially motivated harrassment in the schools for the past four years.
Victor Krejci, administrative assistant to the commissioner of education in Texas, said there have been isolated cases but it has not been a major problem in the schools.
California's Equal Educational Opportunity Commission, however, launched a survey of local school districts last year to determine the extent of the problem after learning of "a couple of incidents," according to the Rev. Dennis R. Clark, the former chairman of the now-defunct com-mission. "As far as we could tell, there didn't seem to be a surge of racially motivated acts by students," he said.
Michael B. Mangan of the Illinois department of education's office of equal educational opportunity said there have always been some problems with bigotry or prejudice in the schools. But he also said there is no evidence that the problem has escalated in recent years.
Mr. Mangan said the department has been concerned with random as well as group acts of racial or ethnic prejudice and has channeled considerable resources to school districts to deal with the problem.
In his letter to Massachusetts school officials, Mr. Lawson said that it is the responsibility of the schools "to take whatever steps [are] necessary to enhance the educational process and to keep it as free as possible from the influence of race, religious, or ethnic prejudice, in spite of diminished financial and administrative resources."
Mr. Lawson said he has pledged to join the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and the state attorney general's office in giving the the problem high priority this year. And he recommended that school officials seek assistance from local human-relations agencies in addressing the problem.
"Beyond the utilization of education materials, school committees and superintendents need to insure that it is understood by all administrators, teachers, and other school personnel that a firm, strictly enforced discipline policy must be en-forced with respect to acts motivated by bigotry," Mr. Lawson wrote in the letter. "It must be made very clear to students and parents that such acts will not be tolerated.''
Edward Melikian, a spokesman for the state department of education, said that during the last school year, an estimated 40 to 50 communities have experienced problems stemming from racial or ethnic prejudice. He said, however, that the commissioner's letter was not triggered by any one incident.
One incident in the Boston suburb of Manchester, nevertheless, did receive widespread attention. It involved an anti-Semitic, anti-black hate group made up of about a dozen 8th-grade boys calling themselves the "Nigger and Jew Haters of America." The group, whose members appeared at school wearing T-shirts with the initials "najhoa," was ordered to disband by school officials.
More than a year ago, the Connecticut affiliate of the nea joined with the Council on Interracial Books for Children to develop an instructional guide on the Ku Klux Klan for distribution to every school district in the state. It has since been adopted by others, despite criticism from some quarters that it focused too much on "entrenched racism'' and overlooked the contributions to society of various minority groups.
At least two Maryland school districts used the guidebook last year, in addition to local resource materials, to counteract Klan activity in the state. The frequency of Klan and neo-Nazi activity also prompted the Maryland state board to adopt a "strongly worded" resolution denouncing racial and religious bigotry.