Recent allegations of racist attacks or bullying among school-aged children have schools and communities doing some soul searching, along with establishing new policies and procedures.
Grace Caudhill, the mother of a 7-year-old boy allegedly racially harassed on a school bus in the Oyster River School district told NHPR reporter Jason Moon that she has heard from the parents of biracial children in other parts of the state who describe similar experiences of "racial denigration and racial hate in school." (Listen to the full story here.)
And in Claremont, a woman claimed that her son had been the victim of a hanging attempt. Facebook pictures of rope burns on the boy's neck went viral and attracted national news coverage. The parents of one of the teens involved recently denied any racial element and called the incident an accident. (Listen to NHPR's Britta Greene's reporting on Claremont here.)
During an Exchange discussion, school officials said they are working to address such incidents -- and to establish a culture in which they are less likely to occur. In some districts, this work has already begun. Tom White, of the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College, works with schools around the state on programs addressing racism and anti-Semitism.
As the Caudhill family describes it to NHPR, several children on the bus did appear to speak up on their son Joseph's behalf and one boy even placed himself between Joseph and the boy bullying him.
"I'm seeing generally the younger generation of students who are empowered in ways that I have not seen for a very long time," Tom White said. "They're the ones often raising the issues as well saying that this is unacceptable for us in our community."
Eric Jackson, president of the Greater Manchester NAACP, said he has noticed more awareness among young people. "I see a lot of students who are activated, who right now say: No, racism is wrong, that there should be something done about it." When it comes to incidents of racism, Jackson said Manchester schools have been "fairly responsive." But academic equity remains a concern, he said. Civil rights groups recently called for more transparency in the district's efforts to address a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which found that black and Latino students were disproportionately underrepresented in Advanced Placement courses.
For several Exchange listeners, reports of racist harassment were all too familiar. (We have edited below email and Facebook comments for brevity and clarity.)
Jaime wrote: I am the father of two bi-racial children. How to protect our children from internalizing the racist ideas that truly permeate our daily experiences is cause of great anxiety and has our family planning on moving out of the States.
An important aspect of the conversation is the understanding that racism is not all KKK and neo-Nazis; it can be subtle, unintentional and pernicious. It is my experience and observation that most people hold deep, unexplored racist ideas that impact how they relate to people of color in negative and hurtful ways. For instance, implicit racial bias. More important than dealing with the overt racist is dealing with the hidden racist within us and especially the deep and entrenched legacy of institutionalized racism in our schools, medical system, businesses, etc.
The schools certainly have a role in helping children learn the Golden Rule. But when the Golden Rule is not being taught at home, when what is taught at home is hate and white supremacy, it will be difficult if not impossible for the schools to counter that indoctrination in any kind of timely manner and to protect school children.
As a biracial child, I was beaten up and called racial slurs here in a high school in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire many years ago. And what happened to the two children doesn't surprise me.
Theresa (she moved to Maine to escape escalating problems in N.H. schools):
The first racial incident happened when my son was two or three years old. A five-year-old told my son, "You're bad because you're black." I was a witness to this incident, and I will never forget the look on my son's face. It was at the public elementary school that he began to be called the "n word." In middle school a child told my son to pick up a candy wrapper off the floor. When my son asked why, he was told that he should pick it up because "you're black." In high school the incidents escalated. My son pleaded with the vice principal to do something about the racism in the school and nothing happened. A picture of a Confederate flag was put in his backpack, cotton balls and fried chicken we're thrown at him. The school was sympathetic but totally inept at dealing with these incidents.
Can schools teach kindness, empathy, understanding?
Yes, says Eric Jackson. "Children spend six to eight hours a day in school, in a community with their peers, with their educators," he said. "I think it's up to the school district and schools to be intentional about creating that awareness."
Middleton McGoodwin, superintendent of the Claremont school district, agrees. "Student voice is often times not heard. Students are our constituents. And when school districts involve students, they become empowered and they become part of the solution," he said.
"It wasn't that long ago that we made excuses about bullying: Boys will be boys, or sticks and stones may break bones, but words will never hurt you. We made those excuses because we didn't know how to deal with it, and we also didn't appreciate how serious and lifelong the impact is," McGoodwin said. "We've come a long way but bullying doesn't stop unless all the staff has had that training, being able to appropriately intervene at the initial stages, long before it becomes much more serious."
Tom White works with schools, including the Kearsarge Regional School District, on examining the Holocaust -- as a way to get students thinking about the consequences of their behavior. "Teaching kids the difference between being a witness, bystander, and the term we use is 'upstander' -- that person who makes the choice to act in the moral responsible way that demonstrates their caring for that other person."
What role does social studies curriculum play in helping students to better understand racism?
When it comes to teaching this country's history of slavery, segregation, and the Civil Rights struggle, social studies curriculum is "all over the map," said Peter Keene, social studies teacher at Kearsarge Regional Middle School for 20 years.
"There are suggestions in the New Hampshire social studies framework where it might give me the opportunity to explore a range of topics that fit into the curriculum guidelines. I might choose to focus on any one of those and exclude some other topics," he said.
"I have gone about it with the goal of informing our kids about our nation’s past, looking at issues where Americans were in a situation to make choices and the consequences of those choices."
Civil War and slavery are taught often in elementary school, he said. "Lots of kids come out of elementary school -- they have a little bit of background on the Civil War and slavery, and then, for a lot of the kids, they think that's it, and they don't really get to address topics related to Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, until high school, in some cases. In my curriculum, I look at the Reconstruction period after the Civil War and the failures of the goals to bring former slaves into equality in the nation."
As Tom White describes it, social studies and the humanities, meanwhile, have been relegated somewhat to the sidelines in schools -- in part because they're not easy to measure, as science and math are.
A single class discussion or assembly meeting does not a change in culture make.
“If we rush to do something to appease the concern it may be politically wise but it won’t be long term and ultimately meaningful to reflect change," said McGoodwin, whose district is assessing ways to respond after the recent incident, even as details still remain uncertain.
"Of all the things that a school district is responsible for the two top priorities are to provide an emotionally and physically safe environment for all children, for all staff, for the entire community. Allegations or statements about harassment, hazing, racism, hate are absolutely very serious and we move very quickly. My objective working with the community and with the parents is to emphasize: Let's do this in a controlled, transparent, communicative way and develop a thoughtful and meaningful plan that will be sustainable over time. An assembly program or a class discussion certainly is important but that isn't going to produce meaningful change."