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The new bullying in schools: bias and bigotry

Averi Kaplowitch, 16, at her Marblehead home. She was troubled by an image posted by a classmate of a swastika made out of pennies.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Averi Kaplowitch was horrified. An image of a swastika made out of pennies and photographed in her school’s chemistry lab had been posted on Snapchat.

Equally disturbing for Kaplowitch, who is Jewish: She recognized some of the students in the picture’s background, yet no one had stepped forward or spoken out about the incident.

The unsettling experience last winter at Marblehead High School prompted the 16-year-old and her best friend to raise $8,000 in three days. That was more than enough to hire the Anti-Defamation League of New England to train teachers and student leaders on innovative ways to combat bigotry, an approach the students are about to share with their peers.


Starting with last year’s presidential campaign and continuing after the election, reports of hateful acts have surged in the nation, and schools have emerged as an especially intense cauldron of activity.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama organization that has long tracked hate incidents and that also produces antibias lessons for classrooms, said it counted more than 1,000 incidents nationwide in the month following Donald Trump’s election. The majority happened in schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Education specialists, who have grappled in years past with bullying in schools, worry the election may have ushered in a new era of bias and bigotry. That phenomenon is being fueled by middle- and high-school students who are tethered to their phones, even in school, said Robert Trestan, the Anti-Defamation League of New England executive director.

“They have access to the same content, language, images, and words that adults have access to,” Trestan said. “And we have seen more and more hate content becoming part of the mainstream.”

Starting this past fall, the Anti-Defamation League has seen a spike in calls for help from anxious school leaders.

Attorney General Maura Healey’s office launched a hotline a week after the election for residents to report bias-related harassment, threats, or violence, and the line has received hundreds of calls, including many from students and parents about incidents in schools.


“We’re working with schools and local police to make sure they are addressing such incidents appropriately,” Healey spokeswoman Emalie Gainey said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center said the flood of calls it received after the election has slowed, although incidents are still being reported. The organization recorded more than 50 reported cases of hateful acts in Massachusetts in the first month following the election, and roughly 10 percent involved school-based incidents.

After the swastika episode last winter in Marblehead, the community witnessed at least three more bigoted acts: a small swastika discovered in April in the Veterans Middle School gym, an anti-Semitic message scratched into the baseball field behind the high school in August, and another swastika, about the size of a quarter, found in a boys’ bathroom at the middle school in late October.

But Kaplowitch is not discouraged. She said she hopes the insights and strategies she and the other student leaders learned about addressing bigotry will help them teach other students who, she said, may not realize the hurt that can be caused by their actions and words.

One of the strategies they learned, and intend to use in their peer training, is the “culture sculpture,” an exercise that asks students to fashion out of pipe cleaners three symbols that are meaningful to them, and to explain why they matter. They are also asked to describe how they feel when one of the symbols is taken from them. The aim is to help students better understand people from different cultures, religions, and sexual orientations.


“It’s really hard for people to come out, and speak out, and share with others who they truly are,” Kaplowitch said. “People can’t be themselves in an environment like school.”

Educators who teach their peers say they, too, are having to reevaluate methods for tackling prejudice in schools.

Daren Graves, an associate professor of education at Simmons College who trains teachers about antiracist practices at schools, said his approach has had to change dramatically from just a couple of years ago. Previously, Graves said, his framework for lessons was the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged after multiple police shootings of black men.

“People were debating what is protest, how does protest work, how do you stand up to authority figures when something is wrong,” Graves said. “It’s moving from a [political] system that produces disparate outcomes, maybe benignly, to a potential system that seeks to discriminate purposely, and that creates a different discourse for an educator.”

Graves said teachers who train teachers should be thinking about how to better equip students to sort through the blizzard of information on social media and from news outlets.

“Kids need to be literate, [having] critical literacy skills, and understanding what’s fake news,” Graves said.

Farah Assiraj, who teaches immigrant students at the Newcomers Academy in Boston’s International High School, launched a nonprofit organization after the presidential election because she felt teachers needed help tackling a rising tide of bias and bigotry.


“Sometimes, teachers who care about these issues feel very much siloed,” said Assiraj, who is Muslim and grew up in Morocco.

Her nonprofit, Peregrinum, aims to get teachers talking to one another, and sharing creative ways to address prejudice.

“You can feel you are the teacher who is taking charge because you embody this race, and it becomes a little overwhelming,” Assiraj said. “We can’t do this work alone.”

Kay Lazar can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.