Combatting Hate Speech in Our Schools

By Stephanie Filio, author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis

Combatting Hate Speech in Our SchoolsYour school has a zero-tolerance hate speech policy. How should administrators react to the following?

  • A student who recently moved from Vietnam isn’t interacting with the other students during breaks. After class, the teacher asks to speak with him. He says that he has been avoiding talking with other students because they keep telling him that he started COVID-19. They are spreading rumors that he has tested positive for the virus.
  • A group of friends are in the hallway using homophobic slurs toward each other. When the teacher addresses them and gives them after-school detention, the students say they were just playing around. The parents call the principal, saying they do not feel that disciplinary actions are fair because it was being said playfully.
  • A young girl is waiting for class to start when her friend pulls her hair wrap from her head, then jokes about her hair. She grabs the wrap back and laughs it off, but later comes to the school counselor’s office crying. She reveals that she was embarrassed and that her mom was recently laid off and had not been able to bring her to have her hair done.
  • Students in the lunchroom keep visiting a table where a female student sits. Later, another student reports to the school counselor that the girl is in the bathroom crying. When the school counselor reaches her, she says everyone knows that she kissed her boyfriend and they keep saying that if she wants to be a good girlfriend, she should do more than kiss him.

Should these instances be disciplined under your hate speech policy? By definition, hate speech is aggressive or insulting in nature and is rooted in prejudiced thoughts and stereotypes. Though laws have changed, and each generation of students has become more inclusive, schools continue to grapple with addressing hate speech appropriately.

We now know that the question of hate speech is more tricky than we thought. Many schools have adopted zero-tolerance policies regarding hate speech in an effort to keep racism and bigotry out of hallways. The events of 2020, however, have exposed racism that remains in our society. So where do we go from here?

One of the most impactful things we may learn from the past few months filled with pandemic crises and social unrest is that respecting and valuing the lives of others is the key to a thriving society. When one of us is hurt, we are all hurt. When one of us needs an advocate or a helper, we all have the ability to fill that role. This sentiment is not necessarily something that we can define in policy, but it is something that can be infused and encouraged in our school culture.

For the examples above, one person might say that though these situations may be insensitive, they cannot be categorized as hate speech. On the other hand, another person could argue that perpetuating stereotypes of any kind, against any group, is incredibly damaging and can threaten the long-term well-being of the people involved. Now is the time to begin asking tougher questions about why we feel that some insulting communication is acceptable for our students and each other.

Zero-tolerance policies can help schools by giving support from division leaders for punitive actions, but there is a wide range of language and behavior that is hateful. Students and staff at my school, for example, know that the term mean girls is not welcome in my office or appropriate to describe social altercations. I consider this term hateful and feel it perpetuates stereotypes about ill-focused and “catty” girls.

If we are really seeking to elevate the social conscience of our schools, we have to start evaluating language differently. Some offensive language in schools has gone permitted under the guise of social acceptance. Changing this might mean making changes in staff decorum and student response to ensure that all students know they are valued.

Effects of the Digital Age

Every generation has its own need for growth after adopting offensive language into common contemporary slang. At the risk of sounding impressively aged, I’d say that with the inception and new widespread use of smartphones, we’re playing a whole new ball game. Younger generations not only have new jargon, they also have a secret world in their phones, one that is free from adult monitoring. Because many adults are unaware of some of the verbiage being regularly used, they are also unable to correct negative social behaviors as easily as in the past.

It is important for any adult to spend some time on Reddit, YouTube, and Urban Dictionary. (Oh, my gosh, my 13-year-old self just rolled her eyes so far back there may be permanent damage.) In these online spaces, you might learn about many phrases and words that students use regularly that sound harmless but represent concealed prejudice. When students are swept up by viral videos and popular memes, they may not even be aware that words they are using hold connotations of historically offensive and hurtful language.

Prevention Is Key

While it is the school administration’s job to take punitive and remediation measures, school counselors really lead the charge with diversion. As with many issues we see in schools, combatting hate speech is rooted in reaching students via trusting relationships and strong communication. This goes beyond working with students, as we collaborate with school leadership and staff on acceptable and safe practices within the entire school system.

Teaching students about historical examples of people having to fight for their civil and human rights is a great start to exposing students to why hate speech is so offensive. Classroom lessons on these topics, or embedding topical content into English lessons, can help you facilitate discussions with students about the subjective nature of hateful language, especially for minority groups who were or still are in a disadvantaged position. Hate speech is best combatted with empathy development at all ages!

Talking It Out

In a recent project with students, one student told staff that when a teacher does not address racial issues in society and the media, students are left wondering what side of the battle that adult is on. This was an incredibly impactful statement, and one that emphasizes the need for student voice opportunities within schools. The key with prevention and diversion from normalized hate speech is dialogue. Students need help finding the materials and words to process these abstract concepts. Classes and groups offer a fantastic framework for appropriate conversation.

Here are some discussion questions and simple activities that can foster growth by uncovering the emotions behind hate speech. Alternatively, students could rotate through each discussion question in small groups.

Question: Have you ever felt like someone spoke to you hatefully, based on prejudiced feelings against you?
Activities: Anonymous writing, journaling

Question: Where do you think prejudiced thoughts come from?
Activities: Class discussion, web graphic organizer

Question: Is it still hate speech if the person saying it says they are just joking?
Activities: Class discussion, think-pair-share switching partners with elaboration

Question: Are people who use hate speech able to change?
Activities: For/against debate, philosophical chairs

Question: What does it mean to say that with free speech comes free consequences?
Activities: Research projects, Socratic seminar

The idea of this set of questions is to steer students toward being solution focused while also allowing enough space for them to have agency as they cognitively tackle the concept of hate speech. Because the content is so emotionally charged, however, it is important to ensure that there are clear rules regarding respect and safety within the social activities. These rules should not be presented as merely school regulation, but rather general standards that all citizens should revere toward their fellow humans. Building conversations around classroom expectations can make this easier, as can reminding students throughout each discussion to consider the perspectives and feelings of others.

When students better understand what hate speech is and why it is hateful, they may be wiser about the words they use in conversations with each other. They might even understand their powerful role in the development of our society, which is still attempting to eradicate racism and bigotry. Though zero-tolerance policies help establish a hard opposition to hate within a school, uncovering and tossing away prejudicial and harmful communication is also important, and much deeper.

Inclusive environments are more than censored discourse, they are also safe and free of hurtful feelings and reinforced discrimination. This is important to our students now more than ever, and it is our responsibility to show them that the educational institution will not be a system that is against them. Instead, this is our opportunity to show children that we are their allies and unwavering pillars for the lives and rights they deserve.

Stephanie Filio, author of Responding to Student TraumaStephanie Filio, M.Ed., is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.

Responding to Student TraumaStephanie is the author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis.

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