Schools coast to coast keep watch for racism
Rancor, ‘meme culture’ can egg on youth spite
CHICAGO — Maryland students using their shirts to spell a racial slur used against black people at a rally. Pennsylvania students posing with swastika-carved pumpkins. A Montana student photographed with a gun accompanied with a racial epithet.
Racial incidents are appearing to pop up at an alarming rate in the nation’s public schools. There were roughly 80 incidents in October alone, by one expert’s count, including a Chicago-area student who was charged with a hate crime for racially charged posts on social media.
Many educators note a spike anecdotally, and social media can give such incidents wider and faster exposure. But it’s far trickier to assess whether there’s an increase numerically, with no organization or agency consistently tracking the issue over time.
School officials acknowledge that the incidents are more visible and brazen, fueled by a polarizing presidential administration, a divided public and “meme culture.” As a result, schools have responded more publicly and intensely than before.
“You have to be aware of it. You have to monitor it. You have to prevent it from escalating,” said Dan Domenech, head of the School Superintendents Association, who believes there is a spike this year.
Studies surveying schools and teachers during the 2016 presidential campaign noted an increase in anxiety and fear. Many traced it to fiery comments that then-candidate Donald Trump made about immigrants, African-Americans and Muslims.
A study released last month by the University of California in Los Angeles showed a surge in teachers reporting student anxiety, from roughly 7 percent in past years to 51 percent this year. It also showed nearly 28 percent of teachers reporting a spike in students making derogatory remarks about other groups during class discussions.
And high-profile incidents such as the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned violent and the spate of police shootings of blacks and other minorities can accelerate racially charged reactions.
Social studies teacher Terry Jess in Bellevue, Washington, said he’s had to be more vigilant this year in reminding students about classroom rules on appropriate language and listening even when there’s disagreement. He also keeps closer tabs on Snapchat and Twitter to watch for incidents.
Still, there’s a lack of hard data on racial incidents in schools, making some experts cautious about reaching any conclusions.
Other experts say another factor could be how students share information through social media, with more of an emphasis on getting attention.