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More and more, young kids are being exposed to hate ideologies

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A story from Southern Maryland, where three middle school students are facing hate crimes charges for antisemitic harassment of a Jewish student. Now hate crimes in schools are not a rarity, and how communities handle them is increasingly important. NPR domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef reports.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Because the case in Maryland involves kids, it's sealed. The little that has been disclosed publicly has come from the Calvert County state's attorney, Robert Harvey. His office filed the charges and put out a press release.

ROBERT HARVEY: I think it's important that the public understand that this kind of behavior is just intolerable.

YOUSEF: Harvey's office claims that three 13-year-olds and three younger kids began harassing a fellow Plum Point Middle School student in December.

HARVEY: Drawing swastikas on notepaper and showing it to her - they were making Nazi salutes. They were holding their finger under their nose like a Hitler mustache.

YOUSEF: Harvey says he's not aware of any threats of violence, but he says it got to the point where the victim and her parents reported the harassment to Maryland State Police. That's how it ended up on his desk. Prosecutors have discretion, especially when it involves kids, but Harvey says he felt he needed to charge the three 13-year-olds with hate crimes.

HARVEY: I want to be sure that whatever happens to these young men, it meets my criteria that they be held some degree accountable for what they did. I wanted to be sure there was accountability.

BRIAN HUGHES: A youth of 12 or 13 should not be facing hate crimes charges.

YOUSEF: That's Brian Hughes. He heads the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University. Hughes says that while charging kids with hate crimes may be surprising, the possibility that kids might engage in this kind of activity should not be surprising anymore.

HUGHES: Any child who has access to the internet, especially unsupervised access to the internet, is going to encounter neo-Nazi propaganda very quickly.

YOUSEF: And not just neo-Nazi propaganda, but racist and misogynistic ideologies as well. Hughes says people involved in them are meeting kids where they're at.

HUGHES: There are groups that specifically hang out in Roblox, which is a very popular game with preteens.

YOUSEF: As national attention has recently focused on claims of antisemitism on college campuses, the fact is that historically, reported hate crime offenses have occurred more often at elementary and secondary schools. The FBI's latest breakdown shows that in 2022, there were roughly 900 reported offenses at those schools. Most have targeted Black people, but anti-Jewish offenses come after that.

Calvert County school officials did not respond to NPR's questions about how much the schools and staff knew of the alleged harassment and what, if anything, they'd been doing about it. A statement simply said that all complaints are investigated promptly and could result in disciplinary action. Mary Bonney says there also may be another factor playing into this.

MARY BONNEY: I also think COVID had a really detrimental effect on students' ability to develop those prosocial skills.

YOUSEF: Bonney has worked with students at some of the schools in the system. She runs the Calvert Peace Project, a nonprofit that tries to increase understanding and collaboration in the community.

BONNEY: Students aren't sure how to interact and aren't sure how to resolve their conflicts. And we've seen that complaint over and over with the administration, with the teachers and with the students - that it's really difficult.

YOUSEF: Bonney says she wonders why the student and her family in this case felt they had to go to state police for help. It signals to her that there's a need for a more holistic, wider response.

BONNEY: If it's escalated to that point, then it's beyond just the school. You know, it requires parents and religious and civic organizations and schools and other public institutions and the community members themselves to say, this is not acceptable behavior. We don't treat one another this way.

YOUSEF: Robert Harvey, the prosecutor who filed the hate crimes charges, agrees.

HARVEY: What I'd love to see is that they have a big school assembly throughout the whole county, and they have people come in and address this, talk about it, tell the kids. I don't know. I'm hoping that's happening in the homes of our community, but you know, I just don't know.

YOUSEF: The cases have been sent to Maryland's Department of Juvenile Justice. Ultimately, the charges may be dropped if a different resolution can be found, like apologies, community service or remedial instruction.

Odette Yousef, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.
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