Schools are on Summer Break… Racism is Not

In my anti-racism and educational equity work with schools I regularly encounter instances of students posting racist content on social media and then the school having to address the fall out. Schools often feel that the incidents and the solutions are out of their control or sphere of influence and that an unexpected (and somewhat unrelated to the school day) crisis has hit them.

A few recent examples: Students pose for and publicly post a group graduation picture while making Nazi salutes… Students threaten to lynch Black classmates “as a joke” in a private snapchat group… Students dress in blackface at an off campus school party and post pictures on social media…

As shocking as these incidents are they are neither rare nor unexpected. They are typical and predictable in occurrence and trajectory and almost weekly I am helping a school to understand the dynamics and how to respond.

First, I want us to shift our thinking and language. Collectively we typically refer to these as incidents. Yet, incidents implies a surprise and a disconnection from something expected and consistent. These events are very predictable and happen regularly. Incident minimizes what is happening. I prefer to use the descriptor: acute flareups.  These are acute flareups of systemic racism. This is the systemic racism we have all been indoctrinated in… flaring up and showing itself publicly. Our children, through their social media posts, are exposing us and convicting us. Their behaviors are not out of the blue, they are grounded in collective. historical. systemic. racism.

Since these are acute racism flare-ups, our first step is to understand the pattern. Over and over, the basic playbook for these acute flare-ups unfold like this:

  1. Privileged (usually white and high school age) student(s) post racist content to social media. Sometimes maliciously. Sometimes thinking it is a joke.
  2. Other students see, share, expose and comment on the post. BISOC (Black, Indigenous and Students of Color) and often other white students feel outraged and hurt.  They bring the post to the attention of the school and their parents.
  3. A heated debate ensues across various social media platforms about racism in the school and what should be done about this particular post.
  4. Local (traditional) media picks up on the growing tension and starts asking questions. Sometimes the media will publish an article or air a news story.
  5. The school or district makes a public statement about valuing a welcoming and safe school community—and that these things should not happen in our school community.

Often the school statement minimizes the impact of the acute racism flare-up by calling it an incident, stating that it happened off school grounds, focusing on the “intentions” of the offending students and/or describing these students as not knowledgeable about the impact of their actions.  The school statement also often minimizes the depth and validity of the hurt and anger of BISOC by mixing their feelings in with the needs of “the whole school community”.

  1. Privileged parents (especially those of the offending students) become angry about the school’s position and public statement. They are also upset that their children’s actions are being chastised in public. They demand to be heard by the school administration and/or board and threaten to sue the school for the anxiety and consequences their students are experiencing.

Note to reader: YES… a threat of a lawsuit protecting the offending students happens in most cases I have encountered. Note to self… stop being confused and repeatedly surprised when this step happens.

  1. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) parents, students and staff along with white parents, students and staff who are hurt, angry and actively anti-racist push the school to discipline the offending students, make stronger public statements against racism and come up with a plan of action to prevent this from happening again.
  2. The school or district feels pulled in multiple directions, is unsure of what discipline they can or should take (due to this happening “off campus”), becomes tentative in their public statements due to nervousness about the media and lawsuits, and turns to “safe” approaches for creating welcoming schools. There may be a suggestion to use restorative circles and/or community conversations to soothe the tension.
  3. Nothing systemic or transformational happens. A short period of time passes. Another acute racism flare-up occurs. The cycle repeats.

End result: Students continue to be hurt and harmed by their classmates and unprotected by the adults who are responsible for their wellbeing. Offending students do not learn the impact of their actions nor how to be anti-racist members of society.

While this article focuses on incidents of racism, this cycle of events also happens in the form of social media posts that promote sexual harassment and violence toward women, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration/nationalism etc. We could apply any portions of this discussion to the variety of ‘isms’, harassment, and discrimination that are present in our society and schools.

So how should schools respond in the midst of crisis and also break the cycle??

The school is making two critical errors in the above described events:

  1. being surprised that the incident happened and
  2. not taking a direct, proactive and systemic approach to address and prevent these incidents.

So how does a school directly, proactively and systemically address the acute flareups of systemic racism created by student social media activity? I propose the following mixture of institutional core values, preventative measures, and crisis responses:

  • Center and prioritize the feelings, needs and voices of BIPOC. We must respond to and redress racism with anti-racism. Schools cannot continue to center the feelings and demands of privileged students and parents even as they are hurting their classmates and community members. We also cannot focus on the needs of the “whole school” without first focusing on the needs of BISOC. When acute flareups of racism happen the first question for the school should be what are BIPOC students, families and staff saying? What responses and resolutions are they outlining? How are BIPOC leading the response? Communications, decisions and actions of the school must be centered in the voices and leadership of the persons most harmed by and most impacted by racism.
  • Do not turn away from real accountability. Schools should directly confront and name the racism that is present. The racism that is present in the offending social media post and the racism that is present in the overall school culture. This is not a time to talk in palatable language and abstractions, to make excuses for the offending students about their lack of knowledge or intentions or to imply that they were joking. This is not a time for schools to shy away from the role and responsibility they have in the problem and the solutions. Often it is also not a good early step to request BISOC to participate in restorative circles or community conversations to soothe the crisis or placate others. Restorative circles or community conversations may be helpful but should not happen before accountability is taken. For restorative practices to work, the school needs to be safe for BISOC. Restorative circles should not be a replacement for discipline and natural consequences for the offending students. Nor are restorative circles and community conversations replacements for schools facing accountability for the environment that has supported racism and the systemic change that is required.
  • Strengthen codes of conduct, community standards, and discipline policies to include harassment and discrimination that happens off school grounds and on social media. Strengthening school rules to include social media behaviors gives the school the opportunity to define, warn and discuss racial harassment and discrimination with students and parents before an acute flareup occurs. It also undergirds the school’s responses to an acute flareup if it occurs. Having strong policies and procedures regarding harassment and discrimination on social media is helpful when parents are unsure or unhappy about the consequences their students face. Strong policies are also helpful when school staff are not sure how to respond. Define and name explicitly what is not acceptable, for example; use of confederate flags to intimidate or align with white supremacy ideology, declarations of white power, KKK or other white nationalist symbolism, Nazi symbolism or salutes, nooses or discussion of lynching, use of the n-word in all iterations, racially derogatory names and language, racialized bullying, blackface, etc., etc., etc.
  • Centralize the institutional response. To ensure that there are swift, consistent and effective responses to harassment and discrimination, centralize the responsibility for responding to these acute flareups with a single person or a small team of people that have a strong foundation in anti-racism. Every professional in the school is responsible for ensuring an anti-racist environment, but inconsistency or lack of mindset and skillset on the part of staff can lead to ineffective or diluted responses. Diluted responses increase the likelihood of exacerbating and cementing systemic racism. Inconsistent de-centralized responses can lead to additional harm for marginalized students and emboldening privileged parents to “shop” for the school responses they desire.
  • Take a PK-12 perspective. While the vast majority of racially harassing or discriminatory social media posts come from high school age students, this is not exclusively a reflection on the high school nor the sole responsibility of the high school. When these acute flareups occur it is the responsibility of the entire school system to communicate, discuss and address. Elementary and middle schools should also be having conversations with their students about what has happened. Many families have children enrolled across multiple school buildings. Many of the students in the high school previously attended elementary and middle schools in the district.  Younger grades are the perfect time to develop students’ anti-racism, anti-bias and social justice mindsets. Younger grades are also the right time to develop students’ understanding of kind and respectful use of social media. Provide all educators PK-12 with professional development that develops and fortifies anti-racism mindsets, skillsets, and commitment among staff.
  • Review and reform the curriculum. Assess the PK-12 curriculum (both explicit and implicit) for its clarity and effectiveness in teaching anti-racism mindsets and skillsets to students. Additionally, assess the curriculum for existence of racial bias, privileging and prioritizing whiteness and content and narratives that support white supremacy ideology. Reform the curriculum PK-12 to become explicitly anti-racist and eliminate bias and ingrained white privilege.
  • Fortify the anti-racism mindset, skillset, and commitment of the school board, school lawyers, and school administration. Many of the acute flareups in racism caused by student activity on social media will eventually make their way to the school board, the school lawyers, and the school administration. It is essential that these high-level decision makers have an anti-racism lens and leadership foundation.  People in these positions must have the mindset, skillsets and commitment to make the hard choices, say the difficult things and hold the entire school community accountable. If these highest layers of leadership do not draw firm anti-racist boundaries the school community and students will continue to experience painful racism with accumulating impact.

If your school or district has not experienced an acute flareup in racism… it could happen. Don’t be surprised if it does. If your school or district has already faced one or more acute racism flareups, don’t be surprised if it happens again.

What are you doing as a school community to be proactive in creating an anti-racist environment?

How are you preparing your educators and leadership to educate and protect students from racism at school? 

What relationships are you cultivating with students and parents to create and maintain racially safe and equitable schools?

These essential questions are first steps in creating and maintaining racially safe learning spaces, teaching our students the impact of their actions and helping them to mature as anti-racist members of society. The resulting answers and actions are even more important. Creating anti-racist schools requires proactive and systemic measures now over reactive responses to crisis later. Our students deserve our courageous and persistent anti-racist leadership.