Schools coast to coast keep watch for racism

Ran­cor, ‘meme cul­ture’ can egg on youth spite

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - NATION - By Sophia Ta­reen

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.

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