Swastikas on bathroom stalls. Chants of 'Build the wall.' Notes that say 'Go back to Mexico.' Education Week found hundreds of reports of hate and bias in schools.
Three swastikas were scrawled on the note found in the girls' restroom, along with a homophobic comment and a declaration: “I Love Trump.”
Found inside the backpack of a Latina student, a note that said: Go back to Mexico.
Two other hate-filled incidents—invoking Donald Trump’s name and using swastikas—were also reported that same day.
The school: Council Rock High in this mostly white, affluent Philadelphia suburb.
The day: Nov. 9, 2016, the day after the election of President Trump.
Council Rock school district Superintendent Robert Fraser condemned the incidents, but told parents he believed they were isolated events. The acts, he wrote in a letter on Nov. 10, were “inappropriate” and would not be tolerated. But, he emphasized, they were “likely the responsibility of a very small number of individuals whose actions should not damage the reputation of the larger group.”
Soon after, the district formed a council on diversity, mostly composed of parents, and took several other steps, including training for school staff to better identify and respond to hate incidents. Despite those efforts, Council Rock High, said some parents and students, continues to have a culture where racist views are sometimes boldly expressed, but oftentimes ferment under the surface.
The hate-fueled incidents at Council Rock in the wake of the divisive 2016 presidential election, and the school’s rocky path to addressing them, are not unusual.
Concerns about a rise in hate crimes and bias incidents have surged since the campaign and election of President Trump, who has frequently used coarse language and racist rhetoric when describing immigrants, people of color, and women. In schools, similar worries are echoed by some students, parents, and educators who suggest that Trump’s influence has emboldened some children, teenagers, and even school employees to openly espouse hateful views.
To understand how hate, intolerance, and bias are affecting school climate and impacting students and their educators, Education Week partnered with the nonprofit news organization ProPublica in a project called Documenting Hate. We analyzed three years of media reports and self-reported incidents of hate and bias in K-12 school settings—many submitted to ProPublica.
In a review of 472 verified accounts, we found that most incidents that took place in schools between January 2015 and December 2017 targeted black and Latino students, as well as those who are Jewish or Muslim.
Most of the incidents—some of which were formally reported to school personnel—involved hate speech, spoken and written. Reports of bodily harm were relatively rare.
The most common words were: “the n-word,” various versions of “build the wall” and “go back to [insert foreign country name here, usually Mexico].” The most common hate symbol: swastikas.
The largest number of reports on a single day in K-12 schools: November 9, 2016—the day after Trump’s election.
But is it fair to lay all the blame on the words and actions of President Trump for the vitriol spewed in schools?
Anecdotal reports aren’t enough to suggest that the president’s inflammatory talk has led to increased rates of bullying and new data show that bullying rates held steady in 2017, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey.
One expert on school climate cautioned school leaders to avoid blaming acts of hate and bullying in the last couple of years on Trump’s influence.
“There is usually never just one cause of bullying, so if we scapegoat it on the president, we are overlooking the broader climate issues that were there before and will likely continue if not directly addressed,” said Deborah Temkin, who is the director of education research for the nonpartisan Child Trends and previously oversaw federal efforts to combat bullying in the Obama administration.
‘How adults respond to incidents affects the entire climate of the school’
In the more than 18 months since the 2016 outburst at Council Rock North, other hateful acts have taken place at the high school and other schools in the district, according to more than a dozen parents and students interviewed by Education Week.
When a group of students campaigned last year to change the school’s American Indian mascot, someone created an Instagram account to counter with racist alternatives. Among them: a KKK figure, an image of a Latino with the words “Council Rock Tacos,” and an image of a black person holding a gun with the words “Council Rock criminals.”
Last year, a middle school teacher in the Council Rock district draped a Confederate flag on her classroom wall, while a district contractor showed up at a school during a session of basketball camp with a large Confederate flag hoisted from his truck. After parents on the diversity council reported the flags for being offensive, they were removed.
Schools have long been a venue for bias and harassment, where targeted students can feel threatened and unwelcome and where parents worry about their children’s physical safety. And administrators often falter in dealing with the ugliness—in both the immediate aftermath and over the longer-term to confront deeper-seated hate and bias in their school communities.
K-12 leaders must first investigate and identify the motivation for the incidents, Temkin said, and then establish whether there are solutions such as anti-bias training and multicultural education that could address the problem.
“We know how adults respond to incidents affects the entire climate of the school, as in saying that these incidents are not okay and not the norm,” Temkin said. “However, there is some assumption on the part of the parents of what a school should do that may not align to what a school should or can do.”
Often, Temkin said, school leaders and teachers may feel pressure to discipline those who commit the hateful acts, but doing so can undermine aiming for a more sustainable outcome in trying to push back on the bias itself. The two main areas to focus on should be making sure kids who were targeted feel safe and delving into why the perpetrators of the bias incidents are acting that way.
While data on hate-related incidents in schools is skimpy at best, the U.S. Department of Justice polls students periodically about the issue as part of its National Crime Victimization Survey. In 2015, the most recent school crime survey, more than 25 percent of students reported seeing hate-related graffiti in their schools. That same survey also revealed that the majority of students who reported being a target of hate-related words attend suburban schools.
Public schools in America’s suburban communities are increasingly likely to be the most diverse, with majority white student enrollments giving way to an influx of students from a variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.
Schools like Council Rock North High, where 88 percent of students are white, 1.5 percent are black, and 2 percent are Latino.
‘I don’t think my classmates and teachers really grasp the pain we feel’
For Jayla Johnson, 17, who graduated from Council Rock North in June, the post-election spewing of hate and intolerance was not new. The African-American student said she had heard classmates use racial slurs and praise the Ku Klux Klan.
“I don’t think my classmates and teachers really grasp the pain we feel,” Jayla said. “It runs deep.”
Her older sister Janai, who graduated in 2013, had encountered a racist threat written on a wall in a girls’ bathroom during her sophomore year: “I’m going to kill all the niggers.” The names of black students were listed, Janai’s included.
When that happened, school administrators didn’t notify Janai’s parents, said her mother, Robyn Johnson.
“No one called,” she said. “They didn’t address it until I addressed it.”
The high school of 1,700 students is in Bucks County, about 30 miles from Philadelphia. It has a reputation for strong student achievement. It’s in a school district sought after by teachers—for the high-performing students and some of the best salaries in Pennsylvania.
When the cascade of post-Election Day hate incidents struck, Fraser, the superintendent, took several steps to address broader issues of racism and intolerance in the school community. Among the most notable was establishing the diversity council, a voluntary group of parents who were to advise district leaders.
The district’s leadership and parent activists—while articulating similar goals—have clashed over how to achieve them. Two major points of disagreement are a lack of diversity in the district’s teaching ranks and how to best accommodate transgender students, according to parents on the diversity council.
So less than year after its formation, district officials decided the parent group would no longer be affiliated with the school system.
Fraser declined to be interviewed for this story. He provided a statement listing over two dozen actions the district has taken over the past two years to confront and prevent hateful acts.
“I am committed to ensuring that Council Rock is clearly recognized as a district that not only welcomes diversity of all kinds but celebrates it,” Fraser wrote.
In his statement, Fraser cited school climate surveys designed by an external firm that were administered at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, but no results have been released yet. Teachers have had diversity awareness training and the district has hosted conversations on equity. It has designed cultural competency at every grade level with community social justice groups such as the Peace Center, which has been tracking dozens of bias incidents in the community and helps counsel targeted families.
“We will continue our work in the coming years, as accepting anything less than 100 percent success in this area is unacceptable,” Fraser said.
But for the parents of students who were targeted by the earlier incidents, the district’s overall response has been too slow and defensive, said Kim Xantus, an Asian-American parent who serves on the diversity council.
While the principal and staff at her children’s elementary school have been proactive on fostering conversations about race, such efforts have been sporadic districtwide and left to students or parents to often lead the charge, Xantus said.
Jayla, similarly frustrated, was motivated to start a diversity club for students on campus. Late last year, she testified in Washington, before U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican, about her experiences with racism and prejudice in school.
But in many places, it is intimidating for students to report being harassed or bullied because of their race, ethnicity, or family’s immigration status.
In Carbon Hill, Ala., three students—all of them African-American girls who are about to start their sophomore year—say they were repeatedly harassed at school during their freshmen year by five white male upperclassmen.
In a high school that is 96 percent white, these students say they were called the n-word and sexually charged slurs by the boys on multiple occasions during the 2017-18 school year. They’ve had fake money thrown at them during lunch. One of the boys threatened to kill the girls by hanging, their parents said.
Keisha King, whose daughter has been one of the main targets of the harassment, says it feels like times have regressed compared to her experience at Carbon Hill High 18 years ago, when she also was one of the few black students. All three families said the aggressive nature of the behavior prompted them to speak out and seek help from the NAACP.
Even though King said that some of the boys were suspended, she still feels the district hasn’t taken her concerns about safety seriously. The students harassing her daughter are slated to return to campus in the fall.
After weighing whether she could move her family to Birmingham—an hour away—so that her daughter could attend another school, King recently decided that for now they would stay. Miracle, King's daughter, confided to her that she didn’t want to run away from the problem nor abandon her classmates who feel isolated.
Jason Adkins, the superintendent of Walker County schools where Carbon Hill is located, said in an interview that he believed the school had taken care of the parents’ concerns about their daughters’ safety. He declined to speak specifically about the discipline measures taken against the boys, citing student privacy. But he did address what he thinks should be done in such circumstances.
“We exist to intervene in those situations where people can not intervene for themselves and need a little help, from somebody that can make a difference,” Adkins said. “First and foremost, there should always be an investigation. Hopefully, most of the time, we then do what we should do as a school system and do something toward helping improve the situation. I am sure that we do make mistakes, and that doesn’t always happen, but it should.”
Adkins, who recently lost a re-election campaign to remain superintendent in Walker County, said he would reach out again to the girls and their families before school starts to make sure their concerns were addressed more thoroughly. “We need to examine working on the school’s culture and asking, ‘how do we go about embracing people from various backgrounds?’ ”
‘It’s hard to believe in a way it’s still around and becoming more prevalent’
Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League have reported that anti-Semitic incidents in general have soared to their highest levels in two decades in the U.S. over the last couple of years.
The ADL has an anti-bias education program that’s in more than 70 schools in New England, mostly in Massachusetts. It focuses on high school students training younger peers, particularly in middle school.
While anti-Semitic incidents took place in schools dotting the nation, Education Week found at least 73 incidents occurred in schools in Massachusetts during the 2015-2017 period that it analyzed. The ADL, however, reported 93 incidents occurring in Massachusetts schools alone in 2017, up from 50 in 2016.
One of those occurred in 2016 at Marblehead High School, in the Boston area. Students circulated on Snapchat an image of a swastika made from pennies that was photographed in a chemistry lab.
“For me, who has direct heritage tied to the Holocaust, including hearing stories from my grandmother during [World War II] of what our family and friends experienced, seeing these reminders of how members of our families died just thrown around on social media, is painful,” said Talia Ornstein, a 17-year-old student at Marblehead High. “It’s hard to believe in a way it’s still around and becoming more prevalent.”
Her classmate, Sophia Spungin, 16, said the incident felt “like a direct attack as it’s the symbol signifying hatred toward a particular group. Plain and simple, it’s not okay.”
After the incident, students at Marblehead worked to raise money to bring in the ADL’s anti-bias program, which extends beyond addressing anti-Semitism to other forms of discrimination.
Some teachers say they must play a frontline role in combatting intolerance. One of those teachers is Jennifer Goss, who designed a course on the Holocaust and other genocides in world history at Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton, Va., where many of her students are white. Goss has taught her course for nearly 15 years, but she said interest has grown among her students, as well as her fellow teachers in recent years, something she attributes to the heightened cultural tensions in the country.
“Initially when I started teaching the class I was using examples of anti-Semitic graffiti that were from 10 years ago,” Goss said. “And sadly, I can go onto most major news outlets today and find examples from just a couple of weeks ago.”
‘I'm not in school with her, I can't protect her’
The pervasive use of social media to spread messages of hate can leave communities feeling pummeled.
Many of the bias reports Education Week reviewed included the use of Instagram and Snapchat. Parents interviewed in various cities said they usually find out about hate-related incidents from their children or social media.
In another case of racist speech spreading like wildfire on social media, seven students at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., used the occasion of the school’s “Scrabble Day” to spell out the n-word with letters written on their T-shirts. A photo went viral on social media in the following days.
Jahneen Keatz, an African-American mother whose daughter Jenea is a junior at the high school, said she got a robocall from the principal who said there had been an “incident” and students had been disciplined. But the principal offered no other details. Keatz finally found out what happened when another black parent saw the image on social media and called her.
After community outrage, the Harford County school district started some diversity initiatives at the high school, where 79 percent of students are white, according to state data.
Bel Air school officials declined to be interviewed, but Laurie Namey, the district’s supervisor of equity and cultural proficiency, sent a statement that listed their efforts, including at the high school campus where “students directly involved in the incident took part in a restorative lesson focused on the historical and current social impact” of the slur used.
Jenea, 15, has become a vocal activist against racism since last fall’s incident, said her mother. But Keatz said she worries about her daughter’s safety.
“My daughter will tell you, I check in with her every day,” Keatz said. “I want her to know that she has a voice and my only job is to teach her how to use it productively, to hopefully evoke change. But as a parent, as a mother…there is some worry. Because I'm not in school with her, I can't protect her.”
These conversations are inescapable for families of color, said Karsonya Wise Whitehead, a professor of communication, African, and African-American studies at Loyola University Maryland who is often is tapped to speak to audiences after a bias incident occurs in their community.
This school year, that call came from her own backyard, after a cluster of affluent private schools in Baltimore, including the school her own sons attend, started a social media firestorm after photos of students and alumni dressed in racist Halloween costumes circulated online.
According to the Baltimore Sun, one photo showed a graduate of Boys’ Latin School of Maryland dressed in an orange jumpsuit with the name “Freddie Gray” on the back, referring to the African-American man who died from injuries while in police custody in 2015 and who became a prominent symbol in the greater Black Lives Matter movement. A second photo, from a different party, depicted two teens from Gilman School and Roland Park Country School dressed in orange jumpsuits with a racial slur in the caption, the Sun reported.
One of the schools, Roland Park, brought in Whitehead to talk to all students about how hurtful and racist the images were and to lead a discussion about diversity, inclusion, and taking “ownership over our words and actions” with the predominately upper-class, white student body, she said.
Whitehead has found that sometimes it’s parents—not school administrators—who are the most reluctant to address incidences of bigotry.
“Sometimes the complaint is, my child is too young,” Whitehead said. “Or it seems like you're stuffing this down our throat. Or I can't believe we have to deal with this again.”
Whitehead’s oldest son Kofi is a student at the all-male Gilman, one of the private schools involved in the Halloween scandal. He will be the vice president of the school’s Black Student Union next year.
“After the incident, I talked with my parents, trying to figure out how to make my white classmates understand what it means to be black and male in America,” he said. “There are days when I do not completely understand it myself.”
‘I tell them to be proud of who we are and what we bring to the community’
In rural Perry, Iowa, the Latino student population has grown a lot in the past 20 years due in part to the meat processing plants and other industries that employ many immigrants from Mexico. Perry High School, once mostly white, is now half white and half Latino, said Principal Dan Marburger. Most of the school’s Latino students are U.S.-born with Mexican-born parents.
But in a region that’s still predominately white, Perry High’s Latino students have been the targets of hate speech—especially in the realm of high school sports.
During a basketball game in February 2016, the Perry Hall team—most of its players were Latino—heard chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” when they ran onto the court to start the game. The taunts came from about a dozen students from the opposing high school, Marburger said.
In statements to their communities and in media interviews, both Marburger and the opposing school’s principal immediately condemned the actions. But those taunts followed a pattern that has been common when teams play Perry High, Marburger said. He’s seen Perry referred to as “little Mexico” on Snapchat, heard soccer players report that people at games shout “hey, where's your green card?” and had fans from opposing teams wear sombreros.
Most of his students of Mexican descent have “been in our communities forever and were born here,” Marburger said. “Neighboring schools don't know that. They just see that, ‘Hey, there's a couple brown kids out on the court. Let's start chanting that stuff.’”
“We have to talk about race every year with our kids at different times,” Marburger said. “I tell them to be proud of who we are and what we bring to the community. Then, we also deal with it straight-up with other schools when we do hear it.”
When hate incidents happen, Marburger says school leaders “need to get out in front of it,” and be proactive, both with students and the broader community. But often, these types of incidents aren’t handled that way. Two of the districts contacted by Education Week for this story, for example, declined to speak directly with a reporter, sending carefully worded statements instead.
‘This conversation does not need to be about blame, shame, or judgment’
While many of the reported incidents were peer-to-peer hate speech, teachers and school support staff have also been the source of bigoted statements.
Marialis Vasquez, who graduated from her New Jersey high school in 2017, said a white male teacher told her and her classmates that he agreed with Donald Trump that Mexicans are bad for the country, calling them “pigs” and “lazy” the day after the election in 2016. The high school, Vasquez said, has a predominately Latino student population. Although she is from the Dominican Republic, Vasquez took the teachers’ remarks on Mexicans as derogatory for all Latinos.
“When people talk about Latinos, they talk about all of us as a whole,” said Vasquez, who reported the incident to the school’s principal, but declined to identify the school or names of personnel out of fear of retribution.
“I just remember him saying in front of the class—it wasn’t a full apology—that he wouldn’t speak about his beliefs any more in the class,” Vasquez recalled. “And that was it.”
Hate speech and bigoted ideas coming from a teacher or school official can result in a different type of long-term damage for students that arguably rivals trauma similarly inflicted by their peers.
“We have some initial evidence that if you are being discriminated against by your peers, that is more likely to affect kind of your social and emotional well-being,” said Aprile Benner, a University of Texas at Austin professor who conducts research on the development of low-income students and students of color. “If you are being discriminated by educators, it is more likely to influence academics, not surprisingly.”
In interviews, both parents and teachers stressed the importance of recruiting teachers of color as an important solution to stemming a tide of bigotry and intolerance. While black and Latino students benefit from having teachers with a shared experience, white students have much to learn from educators from different backgrounds than their own.
One such network pushing to expand the ranks of diverse teachers—Teaching While Muslim—was founded by New Jersey teachers Nagla Bedir and Luma Hasan.
In the hate incident reports Education Week reviewed, Muslim students, particularly girls, are often targeted. One reason: Wearing a hijab, the traditional religious head cover for Muslim girls and women.
Bedir said she and Hasan created the group because Muslim teachers often feel alone when either they or their Muslim students face discrimination in schools. The duo works with other Muslim and non-Muslim educators to hold workshops throughout the country to help combat Islamophobia. They have a blog where Muslim students, parents, and teachers can describe their experiences in school, and list resources such as lesson plans and curriculum guides on anti-bias education.
“We want to also highlight that, and make sure that people don't just see Muslims as one monolithic group,” said Bedir.
Others echoed Bedir, quick to remind educators that minority groups within themselves have intracultural differences important to take into account when designing inclusion initiatives.
Among the hate and bias incidents that Education Week reviewed, some white students expressed a curiosity as to why white pride groups are shunned, and expressed feeling left out of diversity work. In a handful of instances, white students said they were bullied for expressing support for Trump, usually in districts with more racial diversity.
In one urban school district—Denver—leaders have embraced such questions and are exploring “whiteness” as part of its broader work around diversity and inclusion. Twenty-five percent of the district’s students are white, while 75 percent of its teachers are white.
“We really start off with the understanding that everyone has bias, and it doesn't make you a racist,” said Allen Smith, the Denver district’s chief of culture, equity, and leadership, who is black. “This conversation does not need to be about blame, shame, or judgment, which does ease the tension a little bit, and gives permission for people to talk.”
He brought in Jennifer Harvey, a professor of ethics and religion at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, to speak to students and district employees about institutional racism and white privilege. Harvey said the term "white privilege" is often off-putting, but she believes the concept behind it is true—that people who are white have had major advantages, over people of color in how American society functions.
Harvey explained that while it’s “always dangerous to be too general” when analyzing a cultural group, there are important observations to keep in mind when talking to white students and educators about white privilege.
Some white students may never really think about their own identity in terms of race, so don’t see racism as their problem, she said. And in highly diverse communities, like Denver, white students may see themselves as “onlookers” to the bigger discussions around diversity.
“There's a lot of white guilt that then ends up causing white youth to vacate the race conversation altogether,” said Harvey, who is white. “Or the push (for diversity) ends up, more terrifyingly, turning into resentment towards their peers of color.”
In Council Rock North High School, a discussion of white privilege triggered some staff members to leave in protest during a diversity training session, according to parents on the diversity council. Those who left felt the term ignored their lower economic class roots, parents heard.
Dealing with bias remains a work in progress in the Council Rock district.
Kathia Monard-Weissman, who is Latina and has two elementary-aged children in Council Rock’s schools, said a core group of eight parents serve as the executive board, each of whom oversees committees made up of other parents. Students attend the council’s meetings, along with other family members. As many as 100 people have come to the council’s meetings.
At a gathering in late May at a public library in Newtown, a dozen parents discussed their concerns, more than 18 months since the post-election cascade of hate incidents.
• Some school employees who think that dealing with bigotry should not be a top priority given the small number of minority students;
• Some white parents who say the district is failing to prepare white students for living and working in diverse communities; and,
• Fears that students of color and their families will avoid Council Rock’s schools because they don’t feel welcome.
“The community’s changing and we have to prepare kids,” said Lori Perusich, a Jewish mother of two Council Rock students who serves on the council. “We have to realize what’s at stake here if we don’t act now. And we’re not going away.”
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Research assistance from Holly Peele, Maya Riser-Kositsky, Sarah Schwartz, Konan Hui, Linda Ouyang, and Leo Versel