Bigotry and hate aren’t going away anytime soon. But a 16-year-old Marblehead high school student recently offered a quick primer in how individuals, and communities, can take action to neutralize it.
As reported by the Globe’s Kay Lazar, the student, Averi Kaplowitch, was disturbed by an image of a swastika photographed in her school’s chemistry lab and posted on Snapchat. Kaplowitch, who is Jewish, worked with a friend and, in three days, raised $8,000, which they used to hire the Anti-Defamation League of New England to conduct training sessions and workshops with students and teachers to combat bigotry.
Kaplowitch’s response to hateful behavior was unusual, but, unfortunately, the circumstances are not. Over the past year, various kinds of hate speech or behavior based on racial or ethnic prejudice have been reported among school students in Wellesley, Framingham , and Stoughton. And the behavior is not limited to schools: the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors incidents of bias and hate, has reported a general increase in such incidents since the presidential election, and recently reported a rise in the number of hate groups nationwide. In Massachusetts, a hotline created by Attorney General Maura Healey’s office has received hundreds of calls, including many from parents and students about incidents in schools. Robert Trestan, regional director for New England ADL, reports an uptick in such incidents starting in early 2016.
There are various ways to combat such incidents. The ADL conducts training sessions for students, teachers, and parents. (The nonprofit organization’s annual Youth Congress will take place in Boston on March 30.) The Facing History and Ourselves project also provides resources for educators on combatting prejudice. But one emerging consensus seems to be the need to face such problems head-on.
“The schools I’ve seen where they struggle the most are where they’re most reluctant to talk about it,” says the ADL’s Trestan. His own organization focuses on peer training, having found that the students themselves, once trained, are the best messengers for understanding and tolerance, and that they in turn create a sense of community awareness. One-time student assemblies, he suggests, are less effective over the long term. He credits the Wellesley school system with being proactive regarding incidents that surfaced in July, even though students were on summer break.
“Hate is legal in the United States,” says Trestan, regarding issues of free speech. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use speech as a way to communicate our disagreement — that this is not normal, and we don’t accept it.”
Or, as one mother told the Globe’s Lazar, after finding a swastika on her son’s phone as part of a group chat and being told it was “just a joke,” responded, “This is not OK. It’s not a joke.”