The events of the past week have shocked our collective consciousness. Hate-based threats and actions have once again intruded upon our collective experience. The lives of national political leaders have been threatened with pipe bombs. Two people in Kentucky who were shopping for groceries were killed for no reason other than their race. And eleven people in Pittsburgh had their lives taken solely because of their religion.
Such levels of hate and violence in our society are difficult for us to even consider. They can leave us feeling helpless and fearful for our families, communities, and country, and searching for appropriate and effective ways to respond.
The children and young people with whom we work each day also feel the impact, but often lack the necessary experience and contextual understanding to make sense of what they are hearing. As a result, the levels of their fear, anxiety, and confusion can be even greater.
Obviously, we cannot afford to ignore the impact and significance of such hate-filled events on our students. We need to acknowledge and address their feelings, provide reassurance and guidance, and identify ways to respond. Here are some places to start:
- Acknowledge what has happened. Don’t assume that students have not heard or are not concerned. Check before introducing the conversation. If students are aware, offer reassurance, but discuss the situation directly. Depending on the age and maturity of students, provide historical context so that students can understand the source and significance of the behavior or message.
- Give students an opportunity to ask questions and share concerns. What students have heard and imagined likely will lead to some curiosity and need for clarification. The questions students ask will offer clues as to their level of concern and anxiety about the situation and guide you to any additional explanation or support they may need.
- Be alert for students who are feeling anxious. Some students may have past experiences, personal connections to similar situations, or be a member or know members of a targeted group that will intensify their anxiousness. If you observe symptoms of extreme anxiety beyond what you feel prepared to address, consider a referral for more support and contact parents or guardians.
- Reinforce the importance of respect for others and tolerance of diversity. This may be a good opportunity to reinforce school values related to these issues and remind students of past discussions and activities related to valuing and respect of others. You may also share your feelings about the importance of respect and tolerance.
- Teach students what to look for in hate-driven messages. Hate-driven communication typically contains one or more of three telltale signs. The target group is characterized as “others,” or totally different in a negative comparison. The group may even be dehumanized and referred to in generalized derogatory terms. The message also conveys victimization of the source group, implying that the target group is a threat. Third, the message often refers to an era in the past when things were better and a need and desire to return to the “glory” of the past.
- Encourage students to take appropriate action. Depending on the situation, students may volunteer for activities that counter hate and promote understanding and tolerance. They may raise funds to help victims. Or, they may write letters, compose blogs, or develop podcasts to convey their feelings and commitment to counter hate-based actions and messaging. Use your imagination and understanding of context to develop your own list of options.
The events of recent weeks are reason for all of us to reflect and examine our assumptions about and perspectives on those who may not share our viewpoints or disagree with our politics. We need to be able to see the world differently without allowing our differences to become divisions and reasons to demean and harm each other.