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Schools face a climate of hate, and struggle to respond

Amid reports of bullying and harassment across the country, school teachers and administrators don’t always know how to act. Parents want answers.
29 Mar 2017 – 03:21 PM EDT

On a November afternoon, Kate DeStefano-Torres’ son arrived home from school upset. The sixth-grader, whose father is Puerto Rican, had clashed with another student during free time, he told his mom.

At J. Mason Tomlin School in Mantua Township, New Jersey, a girl in fifth grade told him, “No Mexicans allowed.” Then, pointing to a moveable wall in the all-purpose room, the girl said, “Trump built this wall. You’re outta here.”

In response, the boy snapped back, calling her “stupid” and “white trash.”

DeStefano-Torres appealed to the school, seeking an investigation through New Jersey’s Harassment, Intimidation & Bullying (HIB) program. She also requested a training for teachers and students about how to respond to such incidents.

She says she has not received a response.

The school has not answered Univision's multiple requests for comment.

“I just want there to be education. I want the school to train their staff and help the students,” DeStefano-Torres says. “This was a perfect opportunity.”

Just as the rhetoric of the presidential election spurred a surge in hate-filled incidents among adults, it has affected kids, too. Young people confronting their earliest lessons in difference and diversity can become perpetrators of bias, leaving their victims emotionally scarred. Now, many schools are being forced to decide when and how to engage in difficult discussions on race and bigotry.

“Teachers are reporting an uptick of anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant activity,” says Maureen Costello, director of the Teaching Tolerance project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Schools are trying to respond.”

In late November, Teaching Tolerance administered a voluntary online survey to K-12 educators from across the country, which received over 10,000 responses from teachers, counselors, administrators and others who work in schools, indicating that the election had a “profoundly negative impact on schools and students.”

The teachers described an increase in slurs and derogatory language, along with incidents involving swastikas, Nazi salutes and Confederate flags. The report also cited more than 2,500 specific incidents of bigotry and harassment that could be directly traced to election rhetoric, including assaults on both students and teachers and acts of vandalism depicting hate symbols and speech. Among respondents, 672 mentioned incidents involving the word “deportation,” and 476 “build the wall.”

Univision has also been monitoring reports of hate at K-12 institutions through Documenting Hate, a project that is tracking bias incidents and hate crimes around the country since the presidential election.

Reports suggest that the number of incidents remains heightened even months after the election.

“A lot of what we saw then has now been to some degree normalized,” Costello says.

Reports of racist graffiti have continued. Earlier this month, a video went viral of eighth-grade students in Raleigh, North Carolina, chanting "KKK" and making racist remarks about blacks, Jews, Arabs and Latinos. In Atlanta, a student was also suspended for comments on social media that referred to black people as the n-word and advocated for a return to slavery. And members of a high school baseball team in Michigan were disciplined this week after a video caught them saying African-American women are inferior, obnoxious and ugly.

Maria García, a native of Mexico and mother of a fourth grade student in Cleburne, Texas, reported to Univision how her son Emilio was bullied by three students in late November.

“They said they were happy that Trump won and that he would be in charge of sending [Emilio] back to Mexico,” she says.

That day, Emilio complained to his mom of a stomachache. The next day he had to leave school early because he “didn’t feel well.” Since then, Garcia says his grades slipped dramatically.

“He had good grades, he was always interested in school,” she says. “But after that day he completely lost interest and his grades went down. He didn’t even want to stay after school for his music class, which he loves.”

The climate of a school directly impacts how students learn and interact with their peers, Costello says. Schools are generally seen as spaces that teach socially appropriate behavior, and look down on actions that are disruptive or intimidating. But experiences in responding to the current wave of hate so far have been “across the board” and many schools simply don’t know how to respond.

Schools may refuse to see an incident as a “big issue that needs to be addressed in a systematic way, instead reacting to it as a single incident or a joke,” she says. “They may be very hesitant to do anything, even involving discipline, because they risk sounding too political. Or in the best case scenario, they may take it seriously.”

The first two options “fail the teachable moment,” she says.

DeStefano-Torres, the mother from New Jersey, says she was disappointed to learn that the girl involved in the incident with her son was given detention.

“That’s the exact opposite of what I suggested should have happened,” she says. “I don’t want anything punitive here, I just want there to be education.”

Another mother who contacted Univision, who requested not to be named because she is undocumented, said administrators at her son’s Virginia elementary school recommended she seek out a psychologist on her own following an incident in which a girl threatened to tell President Trump where her son lives so he could be deported. Following the incident, her son, who was born in the United States, told her he did not want to go to school anymore.

“He has always been a happy kid, but that day he arrived scared and crying,” she says. “He’s been scared since.”

The principal told her that “kids listen to things their parents are saying” … “and that it was just kids being kids,” she says.

Costello says the first question school administrators should answer after an incident is whether it was an outlier, or whether the issue is “bigger than this one incident.”

“When something bad has happened, the administration needs to denounce the act, uphold the values of the school, take care of the wounded and investigate,” she says.

Following a rash of youth suicides linked to bullying incidents in 2010, President Barack Obama launched a concerted anti-bullying effort. The Department of Education issued a 10-page letter to colleagues outlining an appropriate response to hate and bias incidents and bullying, and ways to make sure classrooms and schools are not hostile environments.

It mandates that schools have “well-publicized policies prohibiting harassment and procedures for reporting and resolving complaints,” and that “immediate and appropriate” action is taken to investigate what occurred and act accordingly.

Teaching Tolerance also offers a number of free resources for teachers and school administrators, including a report that outlines steps and protocols to address a school’s climate before, during and after a crisis involving bias or hate.

Additional resources are available through organizations like Not in Our School and the American Federation of Teachers’ Share my Lesson.

So far, Donald Trump has done little to denounce the current rash of hate.

For parents who want to approach a school regarding an incident, Costello recommends “finding allies” inside the school, even before going to the principal.

“For example, that may be a friendly Spanish teacher, someone from the ELL (English Language Learning) program or a counselor or school psychologist,” she says. “They should be the first ones you talk to. They’ll be your natural allies in the school and they might even accompany you to speak to administrators.”

She also recommends seeking out other parents with children going through similar experiences. “With strength in numbers you can make the argument that this is a pattern and not a single incident,” she says, though she concedes that approach can be more intimidating for undocumented parents.

Indeed, the Virginia mother who contacted Univision says she does not plan to pursue her son’s case in his school, as she’s grown more fearful of appearing in public due to her immigration status.

Karla Hernandez-Mats, the President of the United Teachers of Dade, in Miami, Florida, says a number of undocumented parents have told her they’re scared even to bring their kids to school. “They say ‘I don’t know if I’m going to get deported, if someone is going to call ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) on me,’” she says. “If they’re an undocumented family they know that possibility exists.”

In February, ICE officers conducted a raid in Las Cruces, New Mexico, followed by rumors that further raids were planned. Within two days, 2,100 students there were absent from school, as reported by The New Yorker.

Costello says it’s important to remember that immigration status does not deprive anyone of public education in the United States.

“Parents need to know whatever their status or children’s status, they have a right to be in school with everyone else,” she says. “I know it’s hard but guardians and parents should feel equal to everyone else when they go into schools. The school works for them.”