School Climate & Safety Opinion

Keep Hate and Shame From Being Learned at School

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 29, 2017 5 min read
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Hate speech and actions are on the rise in our country. It has long been our belief that leadership is first about who you are and how that informs your actions, and second about knowing how to perform the tasks of the job. Some are drawing a direct line between the words and actions of the POTUS and the polarization and extremism rising around us. We do, and that direct line is why. Leaders, whether of countries, states, towns, school districts, boards of education, schools, teams, or groups of any kind, model, share, and promote their own values, even when they don’t do so with intention. Those values spread into the community being led. It is not something that can be avoided.

Rarely, does a leader’s decision get met with unanimous support. Sometimes those decisions are welcomed with applause and the non-supporters quietly await their turn. Sometimes there is a loud backlash of opposition. And sometimes, a leader makes a decision that reflects the values held without regard for fall out. An example is the weekend’s pardon of Joe Arpaio. Even within Democrats and Republicans there is a lack of agreement. Those who know the details of the pardon explain the sensitivity of it and the legality of it. A good article to read for more information is Why the Arpaio Pardon Matters by James Fallows in The Atlantic.

The president had the legal authority to pardon Arpaio, seemingly there is no question about that. For some here in the Northeast, this can remain a scholarly question and a political anaylysis. But, we were presenting in Phoenix not long ago and we asked the regular folks we met about Arpaio. Everyone knew him and everyone had a strong reaction to him. To most, he represented a really bad man who delighted in the pain, suffering and humiliation of other human beings but to a few he was a hero produced by the times and events of Arizona. The decision of the POTUS puts his values in line with the few we met.

But all of us received a direct line message from the POTUS. The law enforcement official who violated federal court order is protected. The power of the President wraps around a man who chose to become a national symbol of intolerance and mean spiritedness and defiance. We suspect that hatred is in that mix as well. The message is that these values are now protected in the nation. And, yes, we have concern for the children and our schools. Here, is an explanation of the surging hate crime facts from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The data is similar form other sources such as Business Insider which reports the 7 states where hate crimes occur most often and who are the targets of these crimes.


Even if you disagree with us about the connection of this surge to the words and actions of the POTUS, the fact remains these heinous acts are on the rise. And what happens in the community, in the country, will, no doubt, affect the actions of children in our schools. As educators, we responsibly respect the role of data as it informs our decisions. With that in mind, we are pleased that EdWeek and ProPublica are partnering to collect data in a project called Documenting Hate.


Consider participating. The results will be improved by the size of the sample being used to study the effects of the changing societal behaviors and behaviors being acted out in schools. As part of that process, schools will be given a chance to study the behaviors happening with an eye on the opportunity these behaviors present.

What Values are Demonstrated in Schools?

This is not a time for more or harsher punishments. Most Codes of Conduct are already clear enough. This is a time to be introspective about our own leadership, values, and actions and those of our teachers. This is a time for confirming that the community you are leading feels safe and gathers in unity, standing for values that respect and include others. This is a time for discovering whether all along those values have been evident in the practices within the school.

Children are, after all, legally required to attend school. We need allies to help us understand the experience those children have in our hallways and classrooms and on our buses. Sometimes, they are not what we hope they would be. Schools can be like the streets and roads of Arizona where hatred can hide in a person’s heart until it is invited out. Children will know often times before we do. We need their voices showing us what we are not seeing, telling us where those pockets are fermenting.

We do not all understanding the life experience of children who are LGBTQ or students of color, or of those who are new to our country, or who are struggling with mental health issues, or students with disabilities, or those who have tragedies to deal with at home, or who are living in poverty. We may think we are knowledgeable, but surely we are not experts in all of these areas and most of us have not walked in those shoes.

Now, an Opportunity

Now, there is a new challenge. Whatever the cause, hate is on the rise and it is receiving what some would call supportive attention. Is it silently present in the faculty and staff? Are the students affected by what is happening in the country? The moment to rediscover and recommit to values is now. The adults being led and students in our schools need a leader who is a model of integrity, inclusiveness, and consistency.

Let’s commit to making this year one in which we begin or continue the journey toward effectively doing our part to contribute toward the development of those values in ourselves and our students. Let’s focus a part of our energy on developing a culture where members care for others, learn about how to determine true information from false or partial, and that makes all feel included and safe. Let’s allow our schools to act in ways that help to develop the kind of civility we all hope for in our nation. If these days have allowed a hidden bias and hatred to see the light of day, it is a welcomed opportunity to address the dark underbelly that has been smoldering. Let us take this opportunity to deal with what has been hidden and end up in a better place. Consider the words of Dick Gregory.

“I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that.”

Let’s make that not so.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.