Last week I wrote a blog post about the importance of building a positive school culture and climate as a way of preventing bullying. It was inspired by a line from a Suga Free rap, “If you stay ready, you ain’t got to get ready.” (To be clear, I am not endorsing the rest of the lyrics!)
The line reminded me of the day-to-day work that is so critical in establishing the conditions for learning each of our young people needs in school. It also brought to mind the too frequent crisis or “better late than never” type responses schools put in place when unexpected incidents occur. Worse still are the situations where the school has a seemingly robust social and emotional learning or character education program, but the bias exhibited by disproportionate discipline practices, exclusionary learning opportunities, and silence in the face of hatred and stereotypes send conflicting messages. Bias, both conscious and unconscious, is tough to deal with, but it is what we must confront to “stay ready.”
Our friends at the Southern Poverty Law Center have been documenting a rise in hate-based incidents in schools since the 2016 election. Less attention has been paid to how schools respond to those incidents. My sense is that, while they have been universally condemned, some schools have created crises with a flurry of often disjointed efforts to respond, while at others, they have resulted in a calmer reiteration of the community standards and a reminder of how differences of belief are handled.
I heard from a school last week about their reaction to several swastikas appearing as graffiti on their campus. Their focus was almost completely punitive. They wanted to find and punish the students who had drawn them, but were lost and afraid when it came to what to do next. Their reality was that they had never had a conversation with staff, let alone students and families, about hate or acceptance. They had ignored both and so now were afraid to do anything because it could stir strong feelings.
The leaders and staff members at this school are well meaning, and they want to get this right, but they have never had to deal with a hatred-based incident like this before and didn’t stay ready, so now they must get ready. The school is working with Operation Respect on their next steps, but it got me dreaming about what it would have looked like if they were already prepared.
I imagine that on the day it was discovered, the staff would come together to talk about what happened and how they wanted to handle it with students, families, and each other. They likely would have decided to immediately be transparent in telling the school community what had happened, seeking to identify the source of the graffiti, and addressing the incident in their regularly scheduled student advisory periods which serve as the vehicle for these kinds of school-wide issues.
They would form a small group to meet with the student council the following day to together plan an advisory period session in which they would hold a conversation about bias and hate – what it feels like to be hated, why people may hate, and their own experiences of feeling hate – and then contrast it with a similar conversation about acceptance.
They might also decide to do some work across the school exploring the use of symbols, such as the swastika, confederate flag, rainbow flag, and peace sign, which have been part of political and social movements.
Maybe they would gather as a school community – staff, students, families, community members – to write a community civility contract similar to the one we shared during the 2016 presidential campaign. None of this would be new or out of the ordinary to their students. It would not feel urgent or fear based, but would instead be a continuation and extension of their culture.
What would this look like in your school/class/district? Are you ready or do you need to get ready? We would love to share your stories – the struggles and successes – and welcome the opportunity to help. Please email me any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.