School News - Tori Carr

Hate Speech is on the Rise, How are Schools Reacting?

           On November 8, 2016, 10 hate crimes were reported in the United States. However on November 9, 27 hate crimes were reported, and for the following ten days after Donald Trump’s election the number of similar crimes remained higher than the daily average, according to the Washington Post. The day following Barack Obama’s election in 2008, there was also an increase in reported hate crimes; a 21% increase from the daily average. According to CNN, hate crimes “occur during a period of heightened rhetoric, like a presidential election...Whenever a vulnerable group is given national attention -- whether the attention positive or negative -- people who are biased against the group may lash out.” 

           President Trump is well known for his casual way of speaking as well as his bold comments about controversial topics. Many analysts point to Donald Trump for a new wave of hate speech and hate crimes. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón believes that this increase in hate crimes should not be a surprise because “America’s elected president has mocked the disabled, called Mexicans rapists and murderers, executed a Muslim travel ban, issued disparaging remarks about women and African Americans, and is working to roll back protections for members of our transgender community,” according to San Francisco Chronicle

           According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, after President Trump’s election there was “a surge of incidents involving racial slurs and symbols, bigotry and the harassment of minority children in the nation’s schools.” The phenomenon is nicknamed the “Trump Effect” because “it appeared that children were emulating the racist, xenophobic and coarse language that Donald Trump was using on the campaign trail.” 

           A high school in Newtown, Pennsylvania has felt the repercussions of the “Trump Effect.” The day after President Trump’s election, the school suffered from several hate related incidents such as a note containing three swastikas, a homophobic slur, and the phrase “I Love Trump;” a note in a Latina student’s backpack that read “Go back to Mexico;” and two other incidents involving swastikas and Donald Trump’s name. Council Rock High School’s superintendent responded to the issue by saying the events were “inappropriate” and “likely the responsibility of a very small number of individuals whose actions should not damage the reputation of the larger group,” according to Education Week. The school later responded by  creating a council for diversity to train teachers how to “identify and respond to hate incidents.” 

           Incidents of hate speech or bias are often overlooked by administrations and according to Teaching Tolerance, “Most of the hate and bias incidents witnessed by educators were not addressed by school leaders. No one was disciplined in 57% of them. Nine times out of 10, administrators failed to denounce the bias or reaffirm school values.”

           It seems obvious that hate speech is unacceptable in schools across the world, however when students actually used these words, it is up to every school to decide how these incidents will be dealt with. Our school has faced such problems in the past, and Ms. McGuire, the Dean of Students, is able to give insight on how our school decides to tackle these problems. 

           Ms. McGuire explained “I think that there’s biases that are just part of being in a school that’s in a sort of wealthier, white, suburban community,” which is easily comparable to Council Rock High School. She definitely believed that hate speech was unacceptable in our community, and that, accordingly, students using that type of language should be disciplined. However, she found it sometimes difficult to draw a clear line between subtle biases and outright hate speech. She said, “Some of the biases we have aren’t the type you can necessarily step in and do something about because it’s just, there, part of our community” 

           Ms. McGuire has worked with the administration on how to deal with cases of hate speech in our community several times before, and believes that students who have been caught using hate speech should learn empathy. She believes that, “If you have empathy for each other, you wouldn’t say words that would be offensive and hurtful because you would understand [what] it would be like to stand in those person’s shoes, so I think it’s a really important component, but I also think there are times where you have to step in and say there needs to be a really clear message delivered to the community about what’s acceptable and isn’t acceptable.” Notably, she believes that peer culture is the most effective way to put an end to hate speech, by keeping one another in our school community in check. 

           Mr. Garikes is a current AP government teacher at SSSAS and the former Director of the Upper School. Last year, he led a session during the Colloquium for the Common Good that discussed the difference between hate speech and free speech. He believes that our community should promote respect and community while preserving the students’ ability to express different opinions. He said, “When I was director, at one point I was told I had to get up and say you can’t say this word, this word, this word, and this word. And I had to say it in front of the whole school, and I was finally able to convince the folks that wanted me to do that that was silly because if I say you can’t say these three words then the students will say well he didn’t say that we couldn’t say the fourth word or the fifth word.” 

           He believes that handling problems of hate speech within high schools, it is important to give punishments on a case by case basis. However, “I tend to lean that it’s dangerous when you start to have consequences for words, but at the same time I know some words can be very harmful, so it’s a tough place to be.” While he was an administrator he always addressed different instances of unacceptable speech by directly talking to the students because “if you treat students as young adults a lot of times they’ll react as young adults.”

           Ms. Davis, the Director of Institutional Equity and Diversity, explains that hate speech is subjective in the United States due to our first amendment which gives everyone, including high school students, the right to free speech. She believes that “part of hate speech is the intention. There’s a difference between intent and impact, so I think when people use hate speech, there’s an intention for intimidation. I have heard words that have been historically used as part of hate speech; here, I don’t think it was used with the same connotation. I don’t think it was used as hate speech in that moment.” She has heard words that inappropriately regarded gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity directly; however she considered them to be used in a joking manner without the intention of inciting hate speech. 

           Ms. Davis says when incidents of hate speech are brought to the administration, they should be dealt with, “swiftly and severely.” At SSSAS she says that “it’s our job to teach and give students an opportunity to learn, so that swiftly and severely does not always mean separation from the school."

           Two students at SSSAS shared their opinions on hate speech and how they think it should be dealt with in our school community. Sydney Cordero, a senior, defines hate speech as, “being mean or doing something or saying something mean about that person or to that person because of their background.” She had difficulty finding a clear distinction between joking around and hate speech, but she notes that body language and their tone can be giveaways to the true intention behind someone’s words. She believes that when the administration is handling a case of hate speech, the punishment should be expulsion. She explains, “In my opinion people should have common sense to know that hate speech is not okay and that it’s really unacceptable...that person should be excluded from the community especially because we have a whole talk on the honor code and what it means to be respectful, so I feel like if they cannot follow that one simple rule they don’t belong in this community.”

           Nik Sen Dasgupta, also a senior, gave his opinion about hate speech. He defines hate speech as comments “targeted with mal intent.” He has also heard many offensive jokes in our school community, but thinks they are not necessarily examples of hate speech. He goes on to clarify, “If you used a specific word and you say it to someone with the intent of hurting their feelings, or something like that, then it’s hate speech.” He explains that the administration should always handle incidents of hate speech, and that “the school should find a way to deal with it as quickly as possible so that it doesn’t get in the hands of kids because kids are brutal. Kids can say whatever they want, but a school has to do it in a specific way, so I feel like that’s better than someone being left to the hands of vicious children.”

           Both students believe that Trump has caused an increase of hate speech in schools as well as nationally. Cordero believes “I feel like those Trump supporters are going to follow his lead and they’re gonna go out, whether they’re kids or adults, they’re gonna go out and they’re going to express what he’s saying.” Sen Dasgupta explains that, “I don’t think that it’s people are suddenly changing, it’s just that people feel more open to express. I think they’ve thought it or wanted to say it, and now that we have someone like Mr. Trump as president it’s more okay for people to say stuff like that.” 

           He made a surprising contrast between Trump’s treatment and use of free speech. He explains “there was a supposed KKK rally and he said that even though what they’re saying is hate speech and what they’re saying is wrong, hate speech is still considered free speech... However with the NFL and Colin Kaepernick, he was really against the whole kneeling for the anthem thing which I think is weird because if hate speech is okay why would it be wrong for someone to protest.”