Is your K-12 district equipped to handle bias, racist and hateful rhetoric?

Empowering students to react when incidents occur is critical to a school's success, and administrators must be proactive.
By: | January 28, 2022
(Photo by Chris Burt)

This past January 6 provided a teachable moment to students for many school districts across the country. At others, it was barely addressed or surprisingly spun in a different direction.

At the Future of Education Technology Conference on Wednesday, speaker Kerry Gallagher asked attendees how their schools processed the one-year anniversary of the insurrection on the United States Capitol in her session on antibias, antiracist and digital wellness culture. The answers were far-ranging, from schools like Gallagher’s (St. John’s Prep in Danvers, MA) that proactively addressed the topic head-on to a district that was “very much in support of that insurrection.”

The incident a year ago sparked a barrage of hate speech that filtered down from social media to students. School leaders that decided not to get out front on the conversation while taking the safer path and avoiding scrutiny, may have lost credibility with kids, who are well-attuned to news nationwide. They also may have, unknowingly, prevented students from reporting other hate and violence.

“Up until three or four years ago, the philosophy very much was to keep it quiet so that other students wouldn’t know about it, that they wouldn’t copy it,” said Gallagher, assistant principal at the private Catholic school north of Boston and education director for nonprofit ConnectSafely. “But they already know, and they probably know more about more incidents than we do. They won’t even tell us about the ones that we don’t discover ourselves, because they don’t think that we would do anything about it.  For the school, it might make it easier for us to deal with school boards and upset potential parents, but is that the right thing for the kids that we’re serving? Building a relationship of trust, where they will come to us when this happens so that we can work through it together is important.”

Gallagher’s workshop at FETC addressed issues such as social media’s impact on student understanding of news and digital wellness, while offering educators strategies to provide teens with ways to find accurate information and respond when incidents or hate speech occurs. One of the big takeaways was that administrators and educators who  want to dodge troubling moments can’t do that anymore. Students already are aware of them.

“I don’t think educators are in a position to ‘stay in your lane’ anymore,” she says. “This isn’t just about math and reading and geography. We are not preparing them for adulthood. We are teaching them how to engage in the present world right now. They need to understand how these incidents impact them. They need to understand their feelings when it happens. They need to understand how others feel when it happens if they’re at an age to start having that sense of empathy.”

Via video feed provided by Gallagher, Henry Hunter, principal at Newton North High School, said administrators must react when an incident of hate occurs within the community and denounce it. According to data provided during the session, around two-thirds of educators said they saw incidents of bias or hate during 2018, with racism and antisemitism being prevalent. But 90% of administrations did not condemn it.

“The thing that we need to get better at right now is making sure our students know that we’re taking you seriously,” Henry said. “Many of them are hard to address, particularly when they’re on social media and they’re anonymous. We need to make sure that students hear from us that we are that we’re doing something about it, that we’re trying to provide closure to them, trying to make our school get better so that these kinds of things will happen.”

Henry noted schools must take a more long-term view of racial justice, rather than set simple goals. He said schools should “talk about race every day” but should also not try to install massive changes quickly. Adopting equity as a core value and working on smaller initiatives can help schools achieve bigger goals.

Gallagher said it is important that those conversations and messaging are student-centered. There are a number of groups – many of which fall under schools’ diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives such as LGBTQ+, students of color and girls – that can be negatively affected by hate … or empowered to take a stand.

“Continuing to bring it back to the experience for the students is always the right thing,” Gallagher said. “If we don’t talk about this at the school, the students are still exposed to it and processing it in their own way. You should continue to have the conversations where you disagree civilly with the leadership in your school about what should be done. But within those conversations, you should always be talking about the experience of the students as much as possible.”


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