NEA EdJustice Features

Facebook Live discussion focuses on protecting students’ civil rights

With incidents of discrimination and harassment based upon race, religion and national origin on the rise in schools across the country, more and more educators say they consider their roles in combating hate and intolerance to be as difficult — and as important — as ever.

Many also say they want more information and guidance on concrete ways they can help reverse these trends and support their students.

In a wide-ranging Facebook Live discussion last week, NEA’s Office of General Counsel teamed up with civil rights advocates from the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to discuss what educators can do to protect and strengthen the rights of students in their schools and communities.

“The harassment against Muslim and Arab students has been increasing, but it has always been there. It is just now more blatant.”

Yolanda Rondon
Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.

“The harassment against Muslim and Arab students has been increasing, but it has always been there. It is just now more blatant,” said Yolanda Rondon of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.

In a recent survey, eight out of 10 educators reported that their immigrant, Muslim, black, and LGBT students have “heightened anxiety” about discrimination and harassment, both in and out of school. Educators report seeing an “unleashing of hatred they had not seen before” since the 2016 presidential election — including swastikas, use of the n-word, anti-Muslim bias, immigrants being told they will be deported, and more.

“It’s a response to larger trends in our society. Namely, the increase in explicitly discriminatory discourse in our political speech — as well as explicitly discriminatory policies like the Muslim Ban,” said Ajmel Quereshi of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “But it is also a product of a long history of disparities in our schools with regard to quality of education and discipline disparities — which also send different messages to students regarding how much they are valued as opposed to other students.”

The moderator of the discussion, Eric Harrington from NEA’s Office of General Counsel, underscored that a key step schools can take to respond to such “unleased hatred” is to discuss, develop, and implement an anti-harassment policy that is responsive to the schools’ particular culture and circumstances.

Harrington noted that the NEA has a model policy that has a number of key elements, including:

  • A clear statement that the school district condemns, and will take effective action to prevent and remedy, prohibited discrimination and harassment.
  • A clear definition of the types of conduct that are prohibited, and language making clear that the policy applies not just to students, but also to staff, parents and volunteers.
  • A transparent investigation process to follow after complaints about discriminatory harassment.
  • Language committing the school and/or district to conduct regular anti-harassment and anti-discrimination trainings for students and staff, with these trainings built into the school’s curriculum.

“Of course, schools have a primary responsibility to educate students… They also have an important socializing function – teaching students how to function in a diverse society, with others from different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds.”

Ajmel Quereshi
NAACP Legal Defense Fund

Rondon underscored the need for insuring that the investigative process is both transparent and timely, noting that students tend to lose faith in the grievance process if the victim is forced to relive the harassment and then perhaps has already graduated before an indefinite investigative process is completed. “Schools must take these complaints and handle them appropriately and swiftly,” she added.

“It is also important to highlight that the policy applies to parents and volunteers,” added Rondon. “They both may play an authoritative role in the schools over students, and we want to make sure they are held to the same standards when interacting with our children.”

All three participants in the Facebook Live discussion emphasized the need to look at the broader historical and social context, in addition to addressing specific incidents, and to understand that discrimination and harassment often arise from bias that is learned and acquired through socialization.

“Of course, schools have a primary responsibility to educate students, prepare them for college, teach them the three Rs and such,” said Querishi. “However, they also have an important socializing function – teaching students how to function in a diverse society, with others from different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds.”

“Too often, schools wait until an incident occurs to take action, but then it is too late,” said Rondon. “We want to encourage an open and safe environment for all students, where they feel open to discuss any issues. Model policies help do that. And ultimately an environment where students are not worried about being discriminated against, are able to focus in class and actually receive a quality education.”


Learn more about how to implement local anti-discrimination policies >

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