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Love Trumps Hate: Building Inclusive, Equitable School Communities

Blog: Love Trumps Hate: Building Inclusive, Equitable School Communities

In the month since our November 8th election, educators across the country have been stunned by the increase in racial slurs, bullying, and graffiti featuring swastikas and hate speech on campuses, emulating what children saw and heard in the presidential campaign.

The morning after the election, three students marched through the halls of York County School of Technology in Pennsylvania carrying a Trump campaign sign and accompanied by chants of “white power.”

Meanwhile, Michigan middle school students were chanting “build that wall” during lunchtime.

Students in Queens, NY, told children of color that they should be sitting in the back of the bus, because “Trump is president.”

A high school student in Shasta, CA, handed out deportation letters to students of color in his school and videotaped himself doing it to post on YouTube.

In Maple Grove, MN, a school bathroom door was painted: “F@#$ N@##$%s….. #whites only #white America TRUMP.”

Graffiti on one school wall read: “Black lives doesn’t matter and neither does your vote.”

As the Nation reported, in Skokie, IL, 9th-grade public school science teacher Hillary Tulley overheard this question coming from one of her students: “Is it okay to burn Jews?” One student apparently thought that Jews deserve to burn; the other two disagreed. “I’ve been a teacher for 24 years,” Tulley notes, “and I’ve never heard that kind of talk before.”

In a white suburban community in Washington state, 6th-grade teacher Kyrian Smith observed both fear and bullying among her students. “White students said in class that they were scared of brown people and thought all Muslims should be removed from the country.…The two Muslim students were bullied and called ISIS fighters. My black students were being called n-words.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) anticipated these events in an April 2016 report, The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools, based on a survey of approximately 2,000 k-12 teachers. More than one-third of the teachers surveyed said they had noticed a rise in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment among their students, and a full two-thirds reported that their students—mainly Muslims, immigrants and children of immigrants, African Americans, and other students of color—were worried about what could happen to them and their families after the November election.

Tragically, the fears students expressed to their teachers last spring have proven to be well founded. News and social media include daily reports of students in k-12 schools and colleges being harassed or assaulted because of their race, religion, immigration status, sexual orientation, or gender identity. In a second online survey administered by SPLC shortly after the election, 90% of the more than 10,000 educators who responded reported the election negatively impacted students’ feelings of safety and their behavior toward one another.

My colleagues and I at the Learning Policy Institute—a research and policy organization dedicated to supporting schools in which every student has the opportunity to thrive—join with all those who have condemned these acts of violence and hatred and recommit ourselves to the steps needed to secure equitable and empowering learning for each and every child.

What shall we do?

First, and most obviously, this is a moment for purposeful anti-racist teaching and action in all public spaces. While deeply disturbing, the explicitness and widespread public eruption of hate speech of all kinds gives us a direct opportunity to create a curriculum of civility and caring, and to unseat the tacit bigotry that is often under the surface in schools. This includes:

  • proactively ensuring that the images and messages on school walls and in textbooks are positive, multicultural, and anti-racist;
  • encouraging every teacher and administrator to read and integrate resources for equitable and anti-racist teaching, such as those from Teaching Tolerance and Facing History and Ourselves;
  • ensuring that the allocation of time, attention, and resources in schools attends equitably to all children—and that the divisions and segregation created by tracking and similar practices are challenged;
  • mobilizing the resources of foundations and people of goodwill to tackle the festering issues that America has been dealing with since its inception—when slavery was legalized, African Americans were defined as three-fifths of a person, Native Americans were massacred and driven at gunpoint across the country in the Trail of Tears, and students of color were segregated by law—and later by redlining and other racist customs.

Now, more than ever, educators and policymakers must take steps to ensure that our schools are inclusive, caring communities where differences are embraced and celebrated. And we need to ensure that students and staff alike develop the empathy and communication skills that are critical to bridging the divides that are woven into our country’s history.

To create a more equitable and just education system and society, we also need to confront and change the inequalities and threats to productive learning that are embedded in many of our schools. These four goals are among the most critical to achieve:

Equitable allocation of resources to correct the inequitable opportunities, programs, and teacher distribution we now experience: Our country allocates education funds more unequally than virtually any other in the industrialized world. In most states, the wealthiest districts spend two to three times as much money per pupil as the poorest. As a consequence, in many communities, under-resourced schools serving low-income students have lower salaries and poorer working conditions that result in severe shortages of qualified teachers and school leaders. This in turn affects the quality of instruction and learning. It is a critical part of the opportunity gap that creates the achievement gap.

Equal opportunity for the kind of deeper learning demanded in the 21st century: A curriculum that supports critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, and applications of knowledge to real-world problems is essential for today’s society. And yet, this “thinking curriculum” is too often reserved for students in affluent suburban schools or advanced track courses within more diverse schools. We must help schools develop this kind of thinking curriculum for all students, support teacher preparation that ensures the sophisticated skills needed to teach heterogeneous classes, and question every time a school rations such opportunities to a small minority.

Social and emotional awareness and skills developed alongside students’ academic learning: We need to be explicit in helping students learn to recognize and manage their emotions, develop empathy for others, see others’ perspectives, resolve conflicts peaceably, and engage in social justice work. These skills have been found not only to support safer schools and more psychologically healthy, higher-achieving young people, but they are stronger predictors of success in college and life than traditional academic indicators. Developing such skills cannot just be an add-on to standard operating procedures. Support for social-emotional and academic learning must occur across classrooms, through explicit instruction, and through restorative practices that replace suspension and expulsion with practices that help students learn and take responsibility for their lives and their community.

Personalization and strong relationships: Students need to feel cared about and cared for and to experience culturally responsive, engaging, and empowering learning opportunities in contexts that provide supportive relationships and community. Personalizing the educational context so that it responds to individual students’ home, community, and learning contexts is potentially our most powerful lever to change the trajectories for children’s lives. Often, it is because of close adult-student relationships that at-risk students are able to attach to school, problem solve, and gain the academic and other kinds of help they need to succeed, thereby decreasing risk for dropping out. Wherever children are not tightly connected to a family of other students and adults, alienation and hate can fester. We cannot cure violence with metal detectors in schools: We must create personalized communities of support and caring.

This is our work—to confront and address the individual acts of hatred and bigotry, while building new systems and structures that will support the equitable, inclusive schools our children need and deserve.

Maya Angelou once observed: “While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated. ”In every era of history, every step of progress resulted from the resilience of determined people who have suffered defeats—bombings, lynchings, and setbacks of all kinds—while not being defeated. In his brilliant essay on the lessons from the election, Steve Phillips, author of Brown Is the New White, recalled the Sweet Honey in the Rock song “Ella’s Song”—“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

We who work for freedom must recognize that the acts of intolerance we are now experiencing are part of a centuries-long march toward justice and equality. We must redouble our efforts to demand human rights and educate for social responsibility in order to play our part in bending the arc of history toward justice.