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Tips for parents, staff: How to deal with racism in school

Here is what you can do as parent and staff if acts of racism happen at your school.

This past election was filled with rhetoric focusing on "us" versus "them" and cultivating an environment of fear and anxiety for many. It is difficult enough for adults to process election rhetoric such as "build a wall" and "lock her up", and even more difficult for our children to process what it all really means. Much of this election on both sides has been characterized by promoting "fear of the future and fear of each other" and now we are seeing the after effects with our children and in our schools.

We know this type of behavior exists, but experts believe there has been an uptick in hate crimes post-election. Between November 9 and the morning of November 14, the Southern Poverty Law Center collected 437 reports of hateful intimidation and harassment. Incidents in schools have taken place throughout the country, including the Philadelphia area, Minnesota, California, Michigan, Washington DC, and Maryland.

What can we do to tackle this problem in the schools? I've answered some questions below that parents and school administration may have when dealing with this issue.

What should school administrations do beyond sending letters home to parents reporting an incident has occurred?

Start and continue a conversation rather than a passive letter. Invite parents to the school with their children. Assemblies focusing on bullying during school are great, but holding meetings where parents can attend with their children would be even better. While the logistics of organization for an event like this is vast, the benefits will be huge. It shows that the respectful environment demanded and cultivated in school extends to the home and community.

As a parent, how do you talk to your child if they've seen this type of behavior?

Having a positive, safe, and welcoming school climate is the responsibility of everyone in the building, and it is important to stress that to children. Review exact words and actions that they can take when they see bullying and harassment behavior. Teach them ways they can speak up in a way that is physically safe for them. It is also important to discuss the anxieties and fear that they may be feeling, and to focus on the commonalities and celebration of differences in people, rather than a fear of "them."

If your child has been a target of this behavior, what do you do?

Review what happened and review their "Stop" strategy. Practice how to communicate this "stop" phrase when someone is harassing them, and when they are witnessing another student being harassed. Review how to involve an adult. Discuss the feelings they felt during the situation and reassure them that you will do whatever you can to ensure that they are safe in school. Call the school. As parents, ask how you can help with this. Ask to talk to the school psychologist or school counselor about ways to address this situation that takes the individual needs of your child into consideration.

If your child has participated in this behavior, what do you do?

First, make quite clear on what constitutes disrespectful, bullying, and intimidating behavior. Communicate that this behavior is unacceptable in your home and at school. Discuss the consequences for further engaging in this behavior. Ask your child why they engaged in that behavior. You may find fear and anxiety are at the heart of their motivation. Determining the "why" of the behavior does not condone the behavior, but rather provides explanation to guide intervention to ensure that your child does not further engage in this behavior. Discuss and promote demonstrations of kindness and respect.

As a parent, what can you do to try to ensure this behavior doesn't happen again in school?

Absolutely get involved if you can. Volunteer. Increase your presence at the school. Having an increase of adult supervision in non-structured areas where bullying is likely to occur decreases this behavior. Increased supervision also gives time to intervene immediately and to provide teaching and intervention to all involved as it is happening. Cultivate a home environment built on respect for all people; one that recognizes the commonalities and celebrates the differences in all of us.

For more information:

This guide from the University of Oregon for middle and high schools offers coaching for school officials and students: Bullying and Harassment Prevention in Positive Behavior Support: Expect Respect.

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