At New York City’s Harvest Collegiate High School on Monday, social studies teacher Andy del Calvo did what educators often do: He adapted his lesson for the times. He shared news stories about the massacre of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue and about last week’s shooting of two African-Americans at a Kentucky supermarket, and urged his students to think.
Del Calvo hoped that examining America’s latest heartbreaking moments would give his students a chance to process their feelings, develop empathy for others, and spur them to act — maybe through raising money for victims or expressing themselves through art.
“This is a place where students can get a feel for how to have these kinds of conversations with a broad variety of people,” he said, noting that the school’s 480 students roughly mirror New York’s diversity. “If I have this conversation with friends, people tend to have pretty similar ideas about whatever. Doing it at a school, especially at an integrated school, they are going to have to navigate the issues in a way that is deeply important for our democracy — especially today.”
This weekend’s mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, carried out by a shooter authorities have said targeted the Jewish community and expressed anti-immigrant sentiments online, strikes at the heart of rising concerns about how bias shapes people’s thinking and where the school system should fit in pushing back on those mentalities.
Schools have become fertile ground for anti-Semitic and other bias-fueled incidents — and in some cases, the setting for determined efforts to stamp them out. Educators must strike a difficult balance, figuring out how to address events that have upset students and their families while seeking to avoid being accused of pushing a political agenda.
Overall, the FBI and civil rights organizations have said their data shows a marked uptick in anti-Semitic incidents throughout the country, which has spilled over into schools. In the greater landscape of hate crimes, 54 percent of those targeted because of their religion were Jewish, according to the most recent data available for the 2016 year.
In schools, most hate-fueled incidents usually occur as verbal insults or graffiti — commonly incorporating swastikas — and don’t rise to the level of a more violent hate crime, so are considered bias incidents. Regardless of the nature, those incidents are up, according to several data analyses conducted by civil rights organizations as the federal government doesn’t drill down by location or require uniform reporting.
In 2017, the Anti-Defamation League reported that K-12 schools surpassed public areas as the locations with the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents, with 457 incidents in K-12 schools — a jump of 94 percent from the previous year.
Scott Levin, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming, said he considers anti-Semitism in schools a bellwether for other hate incidents.
“If it’s happening to Jewish students, it’s happening to Muslim students, students perceived to be immigrants, or students of color out there,” he said.
“What’s happening these days is the role models we have have not been all that great in the national discourse, so now there’s additional language kids have learned, there are additional filters that have been removed, and they’re using them to a large degree,” Levin said.
In addition to anti-Semitic rhetoric, the shooter in Pittsburgh had voiced anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim views on online posts prior to the massacre. Another civil rights organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center, tracks various U.S. hate groups and found last year that anti-Muslim groups rose for a third straight year, to 114 chapters in 2017, and anti-immigrant groups rose from 14 to 22 during the same period.
Those sentiments are also resurging in schools, chiefly focused on immigrants coming from Latin America and the Middle East. Students of color, particularly those who are Latino or Muslim, have had the phrase “Build the Wall” and “Go back to your country” yelled at or directed at them. Some school districts have responded to both Trump administration policies and heightened political rhetoric with messages of support for immigrant families.
Teachers, meanwhile, have expressed concern that their responses could be criticized as taking a political stand, and research shows they often feel unprepared to address such issues. Some families and civil rights advocates say the school system has been too reactive to bias incidents and hate crimes their students are processing.
“First of all, we just can’t wait until an incident happens, and schools now need to practice building cultures of respect,” said Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a Southern Poverty Law Center project that offers anti-bias education resources. “Students should be learning about stereotypes and how they perpetuate discrimination so that they all have access to that kind of vocabulary — which provides a foundation for these tough conversations.”
Costello outlined a week capped by the shooting in Pittsburgh — preceded by the shooting in a Kentucky grocery store and several pipe bombs mailed to Democratic politicians and media organizations that have been the target of heated political rhetoric in the most recent election cycles — as proof educators must realize the issue can’t be swept under the rug.
Teaching Tolerance is one of several national organizations looking to push teachers and school leadership to get proactive about anti-bias education in classrooms at the K-12 level, offering booklets and frameworks online at no cost.
Costello also pointed to the ADL’s “Pyramid of Hate” as a tool educators could immediately use to discuss how hateful words can mushroom into violent acts, and eventually policy that allows for genocide at the most extreme. In addition to providing resources online, the ADL offers training for students who can conduct anti-bias training, extending beyond anti-Semitism to other forms of ignorance and hatred, on their own campuses.
Ari Bloomekatz, managing editor of Rethinking Schools, a nonprofit organization that works on anti-racist and social justice education, said school district leaders can do more, including giving educators time to teach “what’s going on in the world,” making sure social studies gets enough attention, and diversifying curriculum.
Curriculum covering Judaism, he said, should go beyond the Holocaust and “teaching about Jews only through the lens of victimhood” to include U.S. Jews’ positive contributions to everything from the civil rights movement to immigrant rights.
“Schools are communities, and our communities are our schools,” Bloomekatz said. “When we talk about the need to fight and resist and protect each other, then the conversation needs to include our schools and be centered around our schools.”
“Our educators, our parents, our teachers, our principals are on the front lines of this fight, and need to understand they are on the front lines of this fight,” he said.
While some U.S. school districts react when bias incidents happens, others are taking initiative. That includes Denver, where a diversity and inclusion chief is pushing such conversations and the district is offering professional development on culturally responsive teaching.
Others do their best in the classroom when tragedy unfolds. At KIPP Indy College Prep Middle in Indianapolis, social studies teacher Andrew Pillow spent part of Monday fielding questions about the synagogue shooting from his students, most of whom are black.
Most of his students have never met a Jewish person, and Indiana’s middle school social studies standards don’t really touch on anti-Semitism, Pillow said.
“They are intimately familiar with the racism that affects them, but not necessarily the ones that affect others,” Pillow said of his students. “Most of them realize it was an ethnic-based attack and that it’s something they should know about. They just don’t really have access to it.”
Pillow said his older students have come to expect these tragedies. He feels torn between making sure his students understand current events and making mass shootings seem normal.
“I need to ride that balance of not teaching it as if it is normal, when in fact it is normal,” he said. “This is just something that for them happens every two or three months. They know one is coming, and they’re not surprised any more when it does.”
Francisco Vara-Orta reported from San Antonio, Eric Gorski and Melanie Asmar reported from Denver, and Shaina Cavazos reported from Indianapolis.
Editor’s note: Without data, it’s harder to understand the issue of bias-related incidents at schools, and for policymakers to take action. That’s why we at Chalkbeat want to help fill in those gaps, and have joined the Documenting Hate consortium organized by ProPublica to better understand the scope and nature of such incidents.
If you have witnessed or been the victim of a suspected hate crime or bias incident at school, you can submit information through the form below. Journalists at Chalkbeat and other media organizations will review and verify submissions, but won’t share your name or contact information with anyone outside of the Documenting Hate consortium.