A noose was found hanging one day last April from the most prominent tree in front of a South Florida high school. It was after almost all staff and students had left. The principal immediately had the noose taken down and wondered how many students or parents had seen it and if it indicated a racial problem to which he was oblivious. He doubted the perpetrators were from his school, as there had been no signs of racial tension all year. Turning the incident into a learning experience for his staff and students seemed like the responsible approach, as it could not be covered up. However, at the time, he had no idea that it would result in national news coverage, intervention from the U.S. Department of Justice, inquiries from the Attorney General's office, and an investigation by the FBI.
The principal immediately notified the district office and media department. Officials wrote a letter to parents informing them that a noose had been found, that it was under investigation,
and that all students would be taught about symbols of hatred later in the week. The letter stressed that the school was very proud of its diverse student body and emphasized the need for all students to get along and be respectful of others. Facts were shared and input received at a faculty meeting organized to discourage rumormongering. Teachers were asked to be aware of student conversations, redirecting students to the facts, and reporting any new information they may hear to administrators. What they knew was that a noose was tied to a tree. No notes, words, or statements were evident. They did not know who the perpetrator was or why it was put there.
The principal realized that some faculty members had a low degree of confidence in dealing with the issue. And most students did not understand how much the noose represented hatred. It became a subject of heated discussion for African-American teachers, students and parents who were aware of the meaning of the noose. And they were angry with those who appeared unaffected by its symbolism.
What came of all this was a lesson used in classrooms with teachers who were best equipped to place the incident in historical perspective. The social studies department developed lessons on symbols of hatred, which included the following topics:
--The noose as a symbol of hatred toward a specific population;
--The symbols of hate that exist toward populations such as Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Native American Indians;
--How symbols of hatred make us feel; the importance of determining the facts before reacting to any incident and before taking action;
--The undercurrents of racial or ethnic tensions that may exist in the school;
--The various suggestions from students in responding to this incident.
--Discussions also helped students have a better perspective on what constitutes a hate crime, which is a crime that has been committed with prejudice against a protected group.
Later that week, two 14-year-old students admitted to administrators that they had hung the noose. They claimed they did not know the noose's historical significance and said they had learned to tie knots at camp over the summer and had hung the rope for entertainment as they waited for their parents to pick them up. The students, who each had a previous disciplinary history, were suspended pending a disciplinary committee review of the incident. The committee felt that their previous history was significant and that the climate of unrest in the school, with some students threatening to beat up the perpetrators, would not allow for their safe return. The students were expelled.
Student leaders, mostly African-American, wanted to ensure that the school did not consider the incident closed. They felt it created unrest and wanted the administration to educate and sensitize students to the impact of hate symbols.
The U.S. Department of Justice's Community Relations Service administers the SPIRIT Program (Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together). The program was developed to help school administrators gain insight into student perceptions of racial problems and to help calm racial tensions and reduce conflicts. It had been effective in other Florida schools and was implemented at the high school over a two-day period by local university faculty and graduate students who were trained in the program by the Department of Justice. It gave students an overview of hatred in America and had students identify similar issues in their school. Students then focused on brainstorming and problem solving. The follow-up was to address high priority issues such as understanding and appreciating different cultures.
Reflecting on how an incident is handled is an important piece of every crisis. In the noose case, faculty, students, parents, and district administrators were kept involved and informed. Each step of the way, administrators considered privacy issues of the students who committed the act, and carefully considered word choices, especially to local media, students and parents. All communications were designed to de-escalate anxiety and avoid providing fodder for the media. Administrators also had students discuss their reactions, needs and ideas for healing. The students prioritized such ideas as diversity issues and creating pathways for better communication between students and the administration. A SPIRIT Club has been formed, and monthly meetings will be held with the school principal.
Scott Poland is a contributing writer for District Administration and prevention division director for the American Association of Suicidology.