Montgomery County, Maryland, has had a nondiscrimination public school policy since 1969. But when three swastika drawings were found in the same middle school during the past year and other racist acts put students and the community of the Washington, D.C., suburb on edge, school leaders knew they had to take action. 

In February, Montgomery County Public Schools overhauled its policies aimed at curbing discrimination, hate and bias in schools, where officials say they’ve noticed an increase in these incidents over the last few years, mirroring trends in K-12 schools across the country. The focus of the new initiatives is a more preventative and restorative approach, rather than a reactive one, in hopes of fostering a culture in which these types of incidents don’t happen. 

“It’s the ongoing work,” said Troy Boddy, director of equity initiatives for MCPS, a minority-majority district. “It’s always in the background. Whether or not you hear about it or there’s an incident, we need to operate as (if) it’s part of the work that we do. We need to create those environments where kids can feel secure and cared for.”

School leaders have always had a linear process for addressing and reporting incidents of hate, bias and discrimination. However, the updated policy includes more training for teachers, mental health services for victims, restorative justice, community partnerships, identifying where incidents are likely to occur, and finding ways to bring students of diverse backgrounds together.

The district has also received a grant from the Maryland State Department of Education focused on equipping teachers and students with the language to address these issues and speak to victims of hate and discrimination. 

Boddy said the biggest change in the district’s strategy is not looking at incidents in isolation. 

“It’s more than just one event that takes place,” he said. “It’s what you do in terms of restoring your school community in the aftermath.”

At Silver Creek Middle School, where two swastika-related incidents occurred last year, that took the form of a reflection day. All 1,100 students came together to talk about their diverse backgrounds and identities — whether Jewish, black, brown, LGBTQ or other — and what symbols of hate mean to them. 

It’s thinking, “how do we, as a school community, bring students and staff together so everybody can ultimately see the humanity in one another?” Boddy said. “That’s going to make me less likely to call you a derogatory term or do something harmful for you.” 

Nearby Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia are taking note of the changes in Montgomery County as they, too, have faced issues in recent months. Last June, an equity audit in the country’s wealthiest county determined teachers and school principals had a “low level of racial consciousness and racial literacy,” and schools were seen as hostile learning environments “not conducive to academic success.” Specific acts of racism highlighted in the report included a noose hanging outside a school building and a teacher telling a student who was born in the U.S. to go back to their country. 

Since then, LCPS has established an equity committee including members of different racial and religious backgrounds in an effort to help turn things around. Additionally, every principal, assistant principal and school dean has completed three half-days of training in identifying and addressing biases, said Director of Equity Lottie Spurlock. Teachers will undergo similar training in March.

An unfortunate trend

Sarah Hinger, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program, said more K-12 schools are confronting these issues and starting to think more proactively beyond just having policies that prohibit bullying or outline disciplinary actions.

“I think it’s definitely something that people are increasingly aware of the need to address,” she said.

That could be out of necessity: Several studies have shown an uptick in school bullying in recent years, particularly since President Donald Trump won the 2016 election on a platform many saw as being critical of Latino immigrants, Muslims and other marginalized groups. In one particular study of Virginia schools, rates of bullying increased in areas where Trump won the vote. 

In a Southern Poverty Law Center survey, “After Election Day: The Trump Effect,” more than 2,500 educators described specific incidents of bigotry and harassment directly linked to campaign rhetoric.

Monita Bell, managing editor for the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program, said the organization has been tracking news alerts of these types of incidents, as well as uses of racial, anti-LGBTQ and other slurs, since then. Already, she said, the data shows that the number of incidents for the 2019-20 school year is on track to surpass that of previous years.

Lessons for administrators

For schools that want real change, diversity and inclusion should be a core value communicated early and often, Bell said.

“That starts with school leadership and the kind of climates they’re creating at school,” she said. “I think it’s really key that educators are really honest about where they are.”

“Oftentimes schools think we operate as if we’re in some gated community,” Boddy said. “The bell rings and all the bad stuff that is in the world never seeps in.”

Yet schools and districts like his are looking at recent history and starting to realize, “This is part of the air we breathe, unfortunately, and so we always need to be cognitive and take advantage of opportunities to bring kids together,” he said. 

A good place to start, Bell said, is a self-assessment through Teaching Tolerance’s “Let’s Talk” resource and asking questions such as, “Do students feel like they’re being policed or do they feel like they can be their true selves?” It also includes a look at the curriculum students are learning in the classroom. 

Teaching Tolerance has a host of online resources available for schools looking to add diverse texts and discussions with a social justice lens — a variance from the norm, which tends to largely focus on the perspectives of white people, Bell said. 

Other organizations offering resources for schools include the Anti-Defamation League, Partners Against Hate and Learning First Alliance.

The DC State Board of Education has turned a focus on this in recent months, launching a multi-year effort to revamp social studies standards in D.C. Public Schools. The current standards are “not culturally relevant, sustaining or affirming” and follow the dominant narrative of white Westerners, while continuing to marginalize underrepresented groups, according to Lindsey McCrea, DCPS manager for social studies content and curriculum, who spoke at a November board meeting.

DCPS spokesman Shayne Wells said in a statement the district is “committed to ensuring all schools and educators have the tools and resources they need to provide students with safe learning environments that support their social, emotional and academic needs.” This includes in-depth staff training on bullying prevention, identification and response.

Engaging students and parents in this work is key, said LCPS’ Spurlock, because even though students can be the aggressors, others are strong advocates and champions for change.

“There is no equity checklist where we can check all the boxes and say we’re done,” she said. “So, listening and building the relations is important.”

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