When I was a district administrator, a parent called me, very distressed that a TIME for Kids article about 9-11 was being read in her fourth-grade child's classroom. She told me that she was sheltering her child from all news media. I responded that children need help making sense of tragedies, and that we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking we can forever shelter them. Yet many educators prefer not to speak about hate. After all, it is sheer ugliness and not something we want to draw attention to in our schools. But hate needs to be examined. Why? Because it exists, and because it is especially prevalent among youth.
According to the National Crime Prevention Council, youth ages 15-24 commit half of all hate crimes in the United States. In a recent New York Times op-ed, "White, Bigoted and Young: The Data of Hate," economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz explored the demographics of Stormfront, the most popular U.S. white supremacist website. His findings revealed that the most common age of Stormfront members is 19. He also found that the most venomous hate was displayed against African Americans and Jews, often with tremendous ignorance about those targeted groups.
Educators are in a unique position to address these issues. To open the dialogue with young people about diversity and compassion, we must not be afraid to talk about hate.
When and How to Start Facing Hate
By fifth grade, children study Native Americans and the Civil War and must make meaning out of horrific historic events. Unlike the child above, who was sheltered, some have witnessed or directly experienced hateful acts, while others have seen them on the news, in movies, and video games.
Adults need to help youth make sense of these frightening things. Although there is often no other way to explain it than as hate, adults can balance brutal reality with a sensitivity to developmental levels, taking care not to raise anxiety. Explanations can actually calm fears by talking in understandable terms about how people can be mean to others while assuring children that many people are working to make a more accepting and safer world.
The focus can be on helping students become empathetic and compassionate while learning to appreciate differences. They can also work to create identity safe classroom environments, places where children of all backgrounds feel accepted and valued, and treat one another respectfully. Rather than sugar-coating history or ignoring hate, by naming it and explaining to children in a responsible way, we can guide young people toward engaging in efforts to make their community a place free of hate and bigotry.
Middle School and Beyond: Stop Hate Together
By sixth grade, students have become fully aware of history and the devastating power of hate that led to tragedies like the massacre of Native Americans, the brutality of slavery, and the genocide of the Holocaust. They now need even more support to analyze not only history, but also current events, whether it is a police officer killing an unarmed teenager and subsequent riots in Ferguson, Missouri or Christians crucified by terrorists in Iraq. Rather than ignoring these horrific scenes, educators can help students understand the roots of hate and bigotry and become proactive about preventing them in their own world. When exploring these issues, students have an opportunity to discuss provocative questions:
- What can people do when hate rears its ugly head in a community?
- What can schools do?
- Is there room for a forgiving attitude?
- What can be done to be proactive about avoiding hate?
Older students can dive deeper into these subjects by:
- Learning skills of discourse with those who hold different opinions
- Developing an understanding of different cultures and belief systems
- Generating ways to spread kindness and respect.
Well-facilitated dialogue about news reports, films, and literature can open these conversations. Not In Our School, a program of Not In Our Town (NIOT), is dedicated to combat hate, bullying, and intolerance with over 70 free films and lesson plans featuring students taking action to address hate and bridge differences.
The new NIOT documentary Waking In Oak Creek (30 minutes, free to schools and communities) provides a powerful example of a how a community came together after six worshippers at a Sikh Temple were killed by a white supremacist. The accompanying lesson plan can also be used as a tool to explore identity safety, help students learn about Sikh culture and their attitude of forgiveness, or launch an anti-bullying campaign.
Engaging Parents in the Process
While recognizing parents' reluctance to teach about hate, educators can help them understand that avoiding all references to hate will not erase it from their children's lives. With the rare exception of the parent who attempted to totally shelter her children, in most cases it is not the schools that are exposing young people to the hate and violence in the world. Violence and hate are readily viewed on television, the internet, and movies everywhere, even in hotel and airport lobbies. Parents need to be invited into the conversation about the importance of addressing hate and all forms of intolerance, and join the school to take action in spreading kindness, compassion, and empathy.
As educators, it is incumbent upon us to prepare young people for the world that they are inheriting and give them tools to combat hate and work for a democratic and civil society. To start, we can open the conversation about forgiveness, compassion, and the importance of standing up.