United States: The New Norm: Responding To White Supremacy In Our Schools

It's here. It's happening. Each day, another piece of what our society recognizes as white supremacist ideology finds its way into mainstream social media and news platforms. We read about it, wrestle with our stand on "free vs. restricted speech," and make decisions on how to align our actions and words. Social media ultimately influences appearance and expression, particularly with children. And there is no denying that the impact of normalizing white supremacy is present in our schools.

The scary thing is many may not even realize that a situation involves undertones of white supremacist influence. For example, imagine one of your teachers finds a crumpled-up piece of paper containing a list of student names on a desk. Some of the names are crossed out with a line. Some have triple brackets on each side of them. The number 88 appears at the top of the page, and the number 14 appears to be scribbled a few times on the back of the page. What do you think the teacher just discovered? A birthday invite list? A group list for a game being played? A kill list?

After such a find, the student is likely in the principal's office being questioned. He is asked about the paper and says: "It's not a kill list. I was just writing out names of students I don't like." The principal does the next right thing and asks the student about the different markings on the paper. When it comes to crossing out names, the student says those are people that he thought about and decided that he likes so he crossed out the name. With the rest of the kids, the principal asks why he does not like them. The student says that they are different than him and he likes people who are like him. Is there any problem with this list?

The New Normal: Exploring Further To Uncover Uncomfortable Truths

At first blush, the school administration may still not be sure. Delving a bit deeper may just be the key to uncovering what the paper truly represents and the potential danger lurking in your school.

As it turns out, the number 88 signifies the phrase "Heil Hitler" because the letter "H" is the 8th letter in the alphabet. As for the number 14, it is known to refer to a 14-word white supremacist phrase allegedly coined by David Lane: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children." The triple brackets? Those are a recognized antisemitic symbol used to highlight names of persons of a Jewish background.

Now that piece of paper has an authentic context. It is one we must look for and pay attention to as it can be the first sign that the undercurrent of white supremacist ideology exists in the school environment.

Your Response Is Critical 

Of course, your school's response first depends upon whether it is a public or private entity. In the public setting, the infamous Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case from 1965 must be followed. In that case, the Supreme Court held that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Public schools can regulate student speech if it "might reasonably lead school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities" or if the speech might collide "with the rights of other students to be secure and to be let alone." Speech that is merely offensive cannot likely be regulated. For private schools, the First Amendment does not control their response.

So, how should your school respond to finding such a paper, particularly when there are no threats of violence? First, your school should determine whether any safety issue or threat currently exists towards any of the students on the list. This may require you to closely monitor interactions of students and groups in hallways, recess areas, lunchrooms, arrival/dismissal areas, and at after-school events. It is critical to determine whether this is an isolated incident or representative of a larger dynamic in the student population.

Your school should also consider diversity and inclusion training for students to ensure the school is communicating its expectations. Also, you should evaluate whether any violation of student conduct rules occurred to determine whether it is in any way connected to this potential undercurrent. Finally, your school should emphasize to all students where to go to report or discuss concerns.

Expression In The Classroom Requires A More Nuanced Approach

Now, let's assume a month later the same student is in history class and he brings up the numbers 88 and 14, their meaning, and his agreement with the meaning. His comments are part of a larger classroom discussion of racial issues in society and other students are also sharing their views. Most of their views differ from his. After class, another student tells the teacher that he was offended by the comments. The teacher brings this student complaint to administration. How should your school respond?

The response to this situation will depend on the totality of the circumstances. The key is to gather all relevant information. Absent a violation of the student conduct code, the school's response should align with the foregoing suggestions: communicate expectations and continue to monitor the situation.

4 Suggestions For Addressing The Current Climate

To be more proactive about these types of issues, we offer the following suggestions:

  1. Stay up to date on social media trends and what students are seeing every day. Your students are often confronted with messages that they don't understand, viewpoints that are new to them, and people that are attempting to push certain ideas on them through unsolicited ads and suggested searches.
  2. Work with administrators and staff on how and when it is appropriate to communicate on hot button issues such as race, ideology, and religion. Prepare teachers to talk with their students in the classroom either as part of appropriate lessons tied to curriculum or in response to unexpected or unsolicited comments by students. Teachers should learn how to deal with discomfort and conflict and how to get past those feelings when communicating with a student should these issues arise. Let teachers know that they do not have to go it alone. They can reach out to the designated contact person for help and next steps.
  3. Empower students to do something about intolerance when they see it in the media, such as writing letters, making presentations, and engaging in their communities.
  4. Keep parents informed on known social media dangers and encourage them to talk with their children about what they are seeing.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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