In the high school where I teach, two students wrote a racial slur in white paint on a wooden bench they built in class. The students sent a picture to a few friends on Snapchat, and it was soon all over social media and made the evening news. People started calling us “the racist school.” I felt outraged, ashamed, scared, helpless, and lost. Then I thought: If a white educator like me felt this way, how was this affecting my students of color?
Unfortunately, racist incidents have happened and continue to occur across our state. In southern Illinois, protests erupted after a Marion track coach used racially motivated language against one of her student athletes. In Chicago at Jones College Prep, a principal was fired after defending a student’s Nazi imitation during the school’s Halloween event. A student in suburban Will County was racially harassed for five years, until students chased him with baseball bats and he transferred to a different school to seek safety.
When it comes to addressing racial harassment, words are not enough. A 2021 federal report found that hate crimes in schools increased 81%, with roughly half of those incidents related to race. A concrete and meaningful policy response is needed to change behavior in our schools.
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That’s why a group of Illinois Teachers of the Year proposed the Racism-Free Schools Act. In simple terms, this bill provides the same kinds of protections to victims of racial harassment that have been extended to victims of sexual harassment for more than 40 years. The act provides clear language and policies to protect everyone involved, resolve incidents quickly, and repair the harm that occurred. By promoting clearer understanding, training for teachers, and age-appropriate communication to students, the bill promotes greater awareness of what racial harassment looks like. Preventing racist incidents will reduce racial trauma, all while improving students’ mental, social-emotional, and academic well-being. Additionally, racism-free schools will help combat the teacher shortage by making schools safer, more welcoming places for students and teachers of color.
These policies aren’t just for schools with diverse student bodies. They are just as important in a mostly white community like where I teach, because white students need to know how to interact appropriately with classmates, community members, and future colleagues who look different than they do.
If we’d had a policy like this one in place last spring, United High School wouldn’t be labeled “the racist school.” We’d be known for who we really are: a community that bands together and supports each other.
Last year, our school hosted Larry and Devine, two exchange students from Africa. At our fall concert, the band performed the national anthems from their countries in addition to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Larry introduced the national anthem of Sierra Leone, saying, “In my country, it is customary to stand when our national anthem is played.” Every member in the audience rose to their feet for the anthem, and erupted in applause at the end. Our community welcomed our guests and went the extra mile to make them feel included in our tight-knit, rural community.
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I’m proud we could be gracious hosts to our visitors, but we can’t forget to be good neighbors to those who are here every day. Our school needs to be a safe and welcoming place for everyone. Victims of harassment need to know their reports will be taken seriously and they will be protected from retaliation. Students in our community, and all students in Illinois, need racism-free schools, and I hope you will join me to create them at RacismFreeSchools.org.
Madeline Wood is the 2023 West Central Illinois Teacher of the Year and a senior policy fellow with Teach Plus Illinois. She teaches music appreciation and band at United Junior High and United High School in Monmouth.
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March 28, 2023 at 06:58AM