School Climate & Safety Commentary

Unrecognized Warning Signs

By Richard Van Dorn — November 13, 2002 4 min read
What role do hate words play in school violence?

Sticks and stones may break our bones ... and maybe words can, too. New research shows that the use of hate words, including derogatory comments about race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and religion, can set in motion a chain of events that sometimes leads to violence at schools. Too often, however, warning signs are not recognized, and violence is reacted to rather than prevented.

We know from years of research, as well as from common sense, that the presence of gangs and students carrying weapons, as well as the availability of drugs, contributes to a school environment conducive to violence. Many people, however, might not make the connection between hate words and violence, assuming perhaps that, as the old saying goes, “names will never hurt me.”

In my own research on public high school students, using data from the School Crime Supplement, a nationally representative self-report household survey administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, I found that students who reported having hate words directed toward them were statistically 3.1 times more likely than other students to report being violently victimized (for example, assaulted or raped) and 1.5 times more likely to report being nonviolently victimized (by theft or property destruction, for instance) while at school. In fact, the presence of hate words was more strongly associated with violent victimization than was the presence of gangs or the availability of hard drugs.

The association between hate words and subsequent school violence, however, is not well understood. While not directly assessed in this research, the link may have something to do with the intimate, interpersonal nature of a verbal attack. Previous research shows that while both hate-related words and symbols—derogatory graffiti and so forth—lead to an individual’s increased sense of vulnerability, hate words represent a stronger and more specific interpersonal attack on the victim than do symbols, which can be produced without a specific target in mind or without directly confronting a specific target.

School violence is a serious and sometimes lethal problem. But there is hope. By better identifying and addressing the factors that underlie school violence, we stand a better chance of disrupting the chain of events before it reaches its potential violent conclusion. One obvious solution, therefore, is to decrease the use of hate language.

By better identifying and addressing the factors that underlie school violence, we stand a better chance of disrupting chains of events that might culminate in violence.

Two potential avenues come to mind in doing this. First, as the Teaching Tolerance Project advocates, educators should create an unwelcome environment for hate speech and symbols. This is accomplished by setting clear prohibitions against the use of disrespectful language of all types, including those focused on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, social class, appearance, and disability. These prohibitions—and consequences for breaking them—should be clearly stated in student handbooks.

Next, there should be an immediate response to every known incident, whether the hate words are used in a joking or serious manner; this way, everyone knows that hateful or disrespectful language is always unacceptable.

Finally, we should be prepared to talk about the meaning of hate words when they occur. If an incident occurs in a classroom, the educator needs to decide whether or not to have a class discussion, or whether the situation would be best addressed directly with the students involved.

A second possible solution is the idea of “school mapping,” which has been proposed by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina in recent publications addressing school violence. School mapping identifies areas in and around the school that are known to be dangerous or disruptive, due to multiple factors including the presence of gangs and drugs, or, in this case, the use of hate words. The identification process makes use of student, teacher, and administrator input as well as administrative records indicating the location of past referrals. As these areas are identified, appropriate resources and interventions can be more effectively targeted at the source.

This is an issue that can and should be addressed early in a student’s life. The U.S. Department of Education, in its publication “Implementing Schoolwide Projects: An Idea Book,” summarizes examples of middle and high schools that have been successful in incorporating diversity and teaching multiculturalism. Both middle and high schools need to develop a system that specifically addresses consequences for the use of hate words. The Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Ala., has published “Responding to Hate at School,” a very useful and informative guide for schools and teachers faced with this problem.

While the First Amendment may protect students’ rights to say, write, or display offensive or hateful words and symbols, courts have ruled that schools can punish behavior, including speech, that is disruptive to the educational process. Granted, a balance between First Amendment rights and prohibitions against the use of hate words in schools must be struck. However, the goal should be to provide an atmosphere in which every student is treated with respect and dignity—therefore decreasing a possible risk factor for school violence.

Changing these behaviors will be easier said than done, especially when the behaviors often go unnoticed by others or are kept secret by all parties involved. But for the safety of teachers and students alike, the question must be asked: Can we afford not to make changes regarding the seriousness with which we view the use of hate words in schools?

Richard Van Dorn is a graduate student and Spencer Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University.

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Unrecognized Warning Signs


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