School Climate & Safety Opinion

Responding to Hate Speech and Bullying in the Digital Age

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 01, 2016 6 min read
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We welcome guest blog author Devorah Heitner, PhD is the founder of Raising Digital Natives and the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World and the Connecting Wisely Curriculum

In the wake of a bitter and unprecedented election cycle, and a wave of hate speech and bullying in American schools, it is hard not to feel discouraged. I wake up at night, fearful for the many communities targeted with hateful rhetoric and violence. Social media can help us repair communities and document incidents, but it can raises new questions for educators.

For example, a video of students in Royal Oaks, MI shouting “Build a Wall” at lunch in a crowded cafeteria was viewed by over two million people within a day of the incident. While the video is hard to discern, parents in the community described the stricken responses of the students who were targeted, some of whom ran out of the room crying.

Documenting these events can help us do the important work of tracking these acts. In this case, the student’s decision to document was a brave and ethical choice that she correctly describes as producing “evidence.” However, circulating these images raises important questions.

What Are Our Motivations for Sharing?
When children surround their peers and yell “build a wall” we need to do more than simply discipline the taunters or tell them to “stop it.” How do we help our students deal with that if it happens to them? What if our students are the ones doing it?

An image of two high school young men wearing handmade “build that wall” t-shirts in Moline, IL also circulated on social media after the election. Like almost all teens these days, the Moline students’ peers were online. Some defended their actions. Others took to social media criticizing the young men. In one of the Facebook groups where I first saw the picture, some adults recommending public shaming. One adult commented on the photo: “Make sure they never get a job.”

As adults, we should always examine our motivations for sharing an image like this, especially when the subjects are recognizable. We need to address the behavior, but as adults, we should be cautious about the ways social media can be an amplifier for these images, reminding us of a child’s worst moment. Hazel Bryan, photographed shouting at Elizabeth Eckford as the “Little Rock 9" integrated their local high school experienced this in a life-altering way when one photograph of her shouting at Elizabeth Eckford became an icon for racism.

Today, kids can thoughtlessly take a picture of themselves wearing an offensive shirt, or donning a racist Halloween costume, or any number of extremely bad ideas and circulate them themselves. While the impact of a single photo may not come to define their lives the same way as Hazel Bryan’s life was shaped by that one photograph, we need to be aware as adults that even photographs that are shamelessly self-produced by kids are documents of one moment in their development.

Understanding Is Not Condoning
To be clear, school leaders should not dismiss hateful lashing out with “oh kids are being kids” but we also need to be compassionate....and curious. If we simply shame students who take these actions, or punish them without asking hard questions about where they are coming from, we have planted a seed for further hate. Kids are confirmed and feel validated in their feelings when we marginalize them in the community. Engaging with them and trying to understand their actions doesn’t imply that we accept and condone their behavior. We need immediate measures to keep schools safe of course, like shutting down the chant. But we also need to see these “visible edges” as a canary in the coalmine.

Maple Grove, MN, is one of many communities where racist graffiti was scrawled on a wall in the days following the election and then shared on social media. The school let students know in clear terms that the graffiti was abhorrent and launched an investigation. Students also responded by organizing a school-wide campaign to counter the hate speech with love.

Even so, a few days later , an ominous image was shared with Maple Grove police featuring dead deer and a comment, “if only these deer were n---". A Maple Grove student was pictured, but it’s not certain that the girl pictured was the creator of the image. In addition to the threat of violence, the inclusion of a recognizable student raises questions about rapid circulation of images that might wrongly implicate - and create - a new victim.

We need to get to the root of where kids are coming from when they create this kind of image. And we do need to teach our students when an image is something they should share with us, but resist forwarding to social media, which can perpetuate harm. In Maple Grove and Royal Oak, administrators plan to continue the conversation with significant input from the community.

Yet the fact that Maple Grove and Royal Oak (and many other places) have seen subsequent incidents is an important reminder that we can’t simply take an “incident” approach to these issues...and an ominous indicator that this climate of hate speech is not a going to go away as quickly or easily as might be hoped.

Working with parents and educators on digital citizenship gives me hope right now. Schools are teaching their students to interact in kind ways online, because it’s the right thing to do - and also so that students are mindful about creating a positive and admirable digital footprint.

Creating Dialogue in Schools
In advising parents of young children on how to talk about scary or tragic events, Mr. Rogers says to coach kids to “look for the helpers.” I say, let’s look to the educators. Let’s look to the superintendent of my local high school who wrote this beautiful letter to students immediately after the election to encourage them to support one another and to assert that their school is a sanctuary from hate.

Let’s look for proactive student-initiated actions like this one in Duluth, where a Muslim student asked her female classmates to wear a hijab one day in solidarity. Actions like these can be very powerful and effective in creating a positive school climate and should be supported.

When images and video documenting discriminatory behavior or hateful speech circulate in a community, kids need proactive guidance and support from educators. These conversations are difficult. But I would urge educators to open the discussion - using these real-world examples or others that have happened in your own community. We need to listen to what parents, educators, and other students have to say.

If we simply drive the conversation underground, we lose an opportunity to help kids understand other people’s point of view. If we create a media circus, it doesn’t help anyone. It gets more difficult and confusing for parents and educators when adults - who should be role models - reinforce negative behaviors. Of course kids are confused. So educators and parents have to step in now more than ever and mentor kids, ask the hard questions, and be as proactive as possible in creating dialogue in our communities that promotes empathy.

Additional Resource:
Southern Poverty Law Center

Photo by Devorah Heitner

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.