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Ask K12 students who want to build walls or intimidate: Why?

Students in districts across the nation have been harassed and intimidated based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual identity in the wake of the presidential election, according to the nonprofit organization Southern Poverty Law Center.

Much of the harassment was directed against immigrants. Black, LGBT, Muslim, female and Jewish students also have been targeted. Anti-Trump harassment has also been reported, though on a smaller scale.

In a suburb of St. Louis, students walked out of a high school twice to protest racist comments made at school after Donald Trump was elected. Two students were disciplined for telling black students boarding a bus they should sit in the back. In Bethesda, Maryland, swastikas were drawn in a boys’ bathroom at a middle school that has many Jewish students.

The greatest problem for students is not so much the actual hateful comments or actions, but the perceived lack of protection in schools, says Howard Stevenson, a psychologist and professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

“The most hurtful moment isn’t an actual threat, but it’s when they realize the adults who are supposed to protect them stay silent,” says Stevenson, director of the graduate school’s Racial Empowerment Collaborative, which teaches racial literacy, and author of the 2014 book Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools.

Response and prevention

Stevenson recommends that educators get 20 hours of training in what he calls “racial literacy,” which includes building teachers’ confidence in their abilities to handle racist or hateful threats. “Just staying silent during such acts is incompetent,” Stevenson says. “It can put undue stress on students, who will then shut down and stop learning,” he adds.

Many adolescents who harass others are seeking power because they feel like they have no identity and don’t matter. Such feelings need to be discussed with the teacher. “It’s about the teacher communicating with students and being self- aware” to help a student feel better about him or herself, Stevenson says.

Understanding a student’s mindset doesn’t mean educators should excuse their actions. The school’s code of conduct is still relevant and punishment is likely. But it leaves the door open for teaching, and a potential path for an offending student to be re-accepted by the community. Teachers should also assure students who feel bullied that they will be taught how to combat the sense of inferiority the bully was hoping to create.

Let students who are acting out be angry. “By not using your power [to immediately punish the student] in the beginning, you communicate that you are secure enough to handle others being upset,” Stevenson says. “You let students know their pain and anger is OK, and that you can safely handle it without rejecting them or their feelings.”

Questions that teachers can ask students who bully

Stevenson suggests certain questions and considerations when dealing with harassment or bullying in school:

During training, teachers should be encouraged ask themselves the following questions:

  • What am I prepared to say?
  • What am I prepared to do?
  • How do I connect it to the pedagogy?
  • If I am teaching history, for example, how is this connected?
  • How do I make this a moment not just for now?

While educators should never ignore an immediate threat to a student, they also should seek outside help from supervisors, the school principal or community members if they need it.

When an incident occurs, Stevenson recommends that teachers do not condemn the student accused of bullying.

Instead ask, “What was behind your action? What did you expect to get out of writing a racial slur or such a symbol on a public wall?”

Then explain that the N-word or swastikas are used to make minorities feel inferior, which is wrong and hurtful.