Committee for Children Blog

Addressing Hate in Schools

A recent report delves into the surge of intolerance in schools and how communities can stand up to hate and bias.

Threats of violence. Menacing images. Bigoted comments and ignorant rants. Spurred by discord in political rhetoric and mounting prejudice against minority groups, instances of hostility and racism happen daily in our nation’s schools, putting more children at risk of becoming victims. A recent report by Teaching Tolerance, an educational arm of the civil rights nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), documents an alarming rise in hate crimes in schools, an increase that has sparked a much-needed conversation about equity and inclusiveness.

Back when I taught high school, I encountered hate and bias with alarming frequency. Undocumented students were teased about their immigration status. Derogatory comments about LGBTQ students and staff—from both students and staff—were common enough that I stopped noticing them. Multiple times I, the only Jewish person in my building, found swastikas decorating my classroom. At the time I didn’t know how to handle these situations, so I mostly ignored them and hoped they’d go away. They never did, and recent evidence suggests that incidents like these are becoming more common.

In its May 2019 report Hate at School, Teaching Tolerance analyzed responses from nearly 2,800 elementary, middle, and high school educators from all 50 states, as well as media coverage. The 23-page report details incidents of hate and bias documented by educators in the fall of 2018. Of the nearly 3,700 events recorded in that period—spanning racial, ethnic, religious, LGBTQ, and political biases—only five percent were covered in the news media.

“Not going to lie. You freak me out.”
—Said to a transgender sophomore by assistant principal
Media report, West Virginia*

Disparities in Educator and School Responses to Hate

The report also addresses disparities in educator responses and reveals that incidents aren’t limited to peer-to-peer offenses, but also occur between adults and students. Many educators reported that the majority of incidents they witnessed were never addressed, and responses to cases of hate and bias were shown to vary by the type of offense: Racial incidents were more likely to be addressed, whereas anti-Muslim incidents were more likely to be ignored.

Of the thousands of hate and bias cases reported in the fall of 2018, 57 percent did not result in disciplinary action. According to the Teaching Tolerance report, “Nine times out of 10, administrators failed to denounce the bias or reaffirm school values.”

Racial and ethnic bias top the list of documented incidents in terms of frequency. Incidents of bias against LGBTQ communities, immigrants, and religious groups—namely people of Jewish and Muslim faiths—were the next most common. Elementary schools reported the fewest events, which the report attributes to the fact that many elementary schools focus on socialization and learning how to work together. As students grow into their own identities and seek social acceptance, bias and hate speech become more prevalent, particularly when influenced by biases at home, within the community, and on social media. Political figures and extremist groups are also called out in the report as negative influences.

“Studies show that children targeted because of their identity can suffer long-term harm, including behavioral problems and depression, particularly when bias comes from school personnel.”*

What Educators and Communities Can Do

Many of the schools that reported fewer instances of hate and bias were implementing proactive measures to address these issues and support a positive school climate. Some have set schoolwide expectations by promoting equity and inclusiveness and rejecting biased sentiments. Others have implemented specific programs, like Second Step, that integrate social-emotional instruction into day-to-day lesson plans.

Leadership and buy-in from staff and students are key to maintaining a healthy school climate. In the report, educators shared some of the efforts their schools were making, such as:

  • Communicating with families
  • Providing professional development for school staff
  • Supporting marginalized students
  • Organizing prosocial behavior

These and other mentioned actions can be integrated into other schools. Outside of school, parents and community members can work together, along with elected officials, to advocate for legislation that supports social-emotional instruction, bullying prevention, and child safety.

We encourage educators and parents to read the eye-opening report from Teaching Tolerance and take action to help keep kids safe, supported, and ready to learn. Together we can turn the tide to create a kinder, more inclusive culture that celebrates all our differences.

More Resources to Fight Hate in Schools

Learn more about how schools can support students and communities with bullying prevention strategies and six additional action areas that build support for suicide prevention.

To stay informed about policy initiatives in your state, sign up for Committee for Children’s policy and advocacy team’s alerts.

* From Hate at School, a report by Teaching Tolerance at the Southern Poverty Law Center