In the weeks following the election, reported incidents of harassment in schools have skyrocketed. Students have been targeted as the result of their race, religion, sexuality, and gender identity, echoing the hateful and divisive campaign rhetoric of the past year. Given the impact that harassment can have on students’ education and mental health, schools must take seriously their legal obligation to “provide a nondiscriminatory environment that is conducive to learning” for all students. Merely waiting until harassment occurs and punishing the offender is not an effective solution, as it does not address the root causes of the harassment or provide the school community with the opportunity to heal. Furthermore, this strategy overlooks the unique position educators are in to teach this country’s future generations the values of diversity and civic engagement. Accordingly, school administrators and educators should take the following steps to prevent harassment by creating a safe and inclusive school environment with opportunities for open dialogue and ensure that marginalized and targeted students feel protected and supported.
Incorporate diversity and inclusion into the curriculum.
Evidence demonstrates that a diverse student body can reduce students’ bias and prejudice toward minority groups. Unfortunately, schools across the country are still largely segregated along racial and socioeconomic lines. While the systemic causes of pervasive educational inequality must be addressed, educators should help counter the homogeneity of student bodies by diversifying their curriculum and maintaining inclusion and respect for other cultures. It is critical that educators help students understand that diversity is a core American value while also teaching students about our country’s historical and contemporary failures to live up to this value.
Clearly articulate school policies on harassment.
Administrators should make expectations about inclusive and respectful conduct clear to staff, students, and parents. School districts are required by Ohio law to create a policy that defines harassment, intimidation, and bullying, prohibits these behaviors, and articulates how educators and administrators must respond. These policies should be made available to all members of the school community, and administrators should make sure that staff and students are aware of the mechanisms in place to respond if harassment occurs.
Furthermore, it is critical that schools make it easy for students to report incidents that made them feel threatened or unsafe. Administrators should have an open door policy and should establish a relationship of trust and respect with their students.
Marginalized students face an increased risk of experiencing trauma. Support services and counseling should be made available and accessible to students who have experienced harassment at or outside of school. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) emphasizes the importance of training educators to recognize the ways that trauma impacts students’ ability to function in the school environment, and “to provide trauma-sensitive responses and supports.”
Intervene immediately and respond appropriately.
Both staff members and students should be given clear guidance and instruction on the appropriate actions to take when harassment occurs. Students should be encouraged to speak up, intervening in the moment or reporting harassment to a teacher or administrator. Staff members that observe or learn of harassment must take action to stop the harassment immediately and ensure that targeted students are safe.
It is imperative that school officials act transparently in responding to the incident, denounce the harassment, and provide support and counseling services both for the targeted individuals and other members of the school community who were indirectly impacted. Rather than pretending the harassment didn’t occur, educators should embrace the opportunity to discuss the underlying causes of prejudice and bias with their students, and promote empathy and compassion.
Promote and facilitate respectful civic engagement.
While schools have a legal and moral duty to provide a safe learning environment for all students, it is important that educators recognize that schools do not exist in bubble. Heated political conversations are going to take place within school walls. Rather than try to silence students and punish civic engagement, educators should embrace the opportunity to teach students how to communicate respectfully and understand different points of view. Teaching students conflict resolution skills and promoting respect for differences in opinion may actually deter future incidences of harassment and violence.