Confronting Student Prejudice: Important Questions About a School’s Obligation to Address Hateful or Hurtful Expression; Do Your Values Have Teeth?
A history teacher encounters a dismissive and demeaning reference to gay and lesbian people in a student essay. A Spanish teacher senses that students are obliquely mocking stereotypes of Latinx persons during conversational practice exercises. An English student continually asserts in class discussions of a Toni Morrison novel that white people are an imperiled minority.
These are teachable moments, right? The teacher must call on the students to justify their statements with facts or counterarguments, reminding them in teacherly ways that such expressions might be painful to some listeners or readers. Operating within the constraints of the “free speech rights” of the student versus the teacher’s obligation to protect fact and uphold the values of the school, the dialogue or debate must go forward, counter-argument against counter-argument, until some kind of stasis—maybe just an agreement to disagree—is reached.
But when, confronted with obvious evidence, can a teacher call out behavior or expression as racist or as expressing a kind of bias that is at odds not only with the teacher’s own values but those implicit or explicit in the school’s statements of values and beliefs? Is this ever the right thing to do, and can a teacher reasonably expect that a school administration will back them up?
And it’s not just students, we know. A faculty member might hold and express biased perspectives on certain groups of people, subtly and infrequently expressed well beyond the sight or earshot of students, but nonetheless painful to colleagues.
It’s easy for schools to address anonymous or flagrant bias incidents: the note on the locker, the social media post, the abhorrent photograph. The leadership appropriately musters the community’s righteous indignation, reminds everyone that there is no place for this kind of thing, and perhaps even separates members caught red-handed in behavior that is patently and intentionally hurtful to others. All this is as easy as expelling the students caught vaping in a bathroom where This Is A Non-Smoking Campus.
But let’s say that a student or students are well known in the community for living in a household where prejudiced perspectives are the norm. Either because the school didn’t know about or ignored these oppositional values during the admission process or because the household in question has some authority in or special value to the school as an institution, the children of the household arrive at school each day armed with beliefs that might be inflammatory but shielded from the consequences of expressing these beliefs by their special privilege. To confront these students of “parents of power,” as I call them, is to risk one’s job, and every private school teacher knows it.
We exhort independent schools, in particular, to live by their missions and values, to build their communities and cultures of learning around high ideals embodied in lofty mission statements and positive assertions. In our most optimistic moments we can imagine that these statements and the supporting evidence schools provide in their marketing and advancement messaging comprise a covenant between schools and families: a solemn, high-stakes promise made and to be kept by the school.
But in whose name do we create these aspirational statements? Is it for the institution as a corporate entity, a “we” that offers a side-door out through which contrary-minded individuals, in the moment or in their own committed beliefs, can usher themselves without consequence? Or are these aspirational statements of values and purposes (or should they be) intended as benign but rock-hard imperatives that serve as the moral and ethical foundation of intentional communities?
Does your school’s enrollment contract explicitly connect supporting your school’s mission and values to community membership? Does your board’s “Statement on Diversity” (perhaps now looking a bit long in the tooth, as many of these are) commit not just the institution but its members—faculty, students, and families alike—to abiding by its expressed principles of equity and inclusion?
In other words, do or should school’s statements of values and purposes have any teeth? Can a student be confronted not just with the illogic of a biased position but with the ways such positions clash with and undermine the ideals of the community? Can students and families legitimately be asked to check protective privilege at the schoolhouse door as antithetical to stated ideals around diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Might offended and uncomfortable teachers reasonably expect that, beyond having to make their personal case to individual students against hurtful or hateful expressions, their schools will support them by addressing these expressions not just as classroom issues but as institutional ones?
No school, of course, can address such questions to any positive effect in the absence of its own community understandings of norms and values around DEI issues. No student can be meaningfully confronted about hurtful expression if the school has not engaged in community-wide conversations and professional learning that provide tools and language for discussing these issues. If the school has an office charged with oversight of such conversations and learning, so much the better, but the work must be everyone’s. No effective remonstrance can be issued in the absence of a palpable sense that certain affirmative values are the way “we”—the institution and its individual members—are and must expect themselves to be.
Schools must truly live by the courage of their convictions. If such things matter to a school as much as most schools say they do, the school must be committed to calling out—and perhaps calling the question on—expression that violates its stated ideals. When teachable moments in a classroom don’t or can’t teach, the institution and all that it stands for must be prepared and willing to step up and step in.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)