A young man holds a dark can of spray paint close to a blue wall to sketch his graffiti
Mini-Lesson
Current Event

Acts of Hate in Schools

Students learn about the overall rise in acts of hate in schools and examine a story that illustrates how acts of antisemitism, racism, and other forms of hate can overlap.

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At a Glance

Mini-Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • Social Studies

Grade

6–12
  • Antisemitism
  • Racism

Overview

About This Mini-Lesson

Reports of antisemitic incidents in the United States are at an all-time high in recent years, according to the Anti-Defamation League, highlighting the persistence of antisemitism in the country. This pattern is borne out by recent news reports, including a string of attacks on Jews in New York in December 2019, an antisemitic rant at a school board meeting in Arizona in November 2021, and a spike in antisemitic social media content and violent assaults against Jews directly following escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in May 2021. The acts of hate that get reported to the police or covered in the media, however, are only the tip of the iceberg; experts estimate that more than half of hate-crime victims do not report the crime to authorities.

Symbols of antisemitism are increasingly visible within schools across the United States. Students of all ages, from elementary school through university, have been caught vandalizing their schools with symbols and speech that target Jews. Antisemitic graffiti has been found in numerous high schools across the country, including schools in Salem, Oregon; Brooklyn, New York; Wantage, New Jersey; and San Diego, California

The regular rhythm of these reports risks making them seem routine, even a “normal” part of school life. We should talk about these acts of antisemitism, as well as acts of racism and hate, with our students—and not only when there’s been an incident in our own school. These conversations can help students understand the power and impact of hateful acts and support their moral development and civic agency. In this way, education can be a part of preventing—not just responding to—bigotry at school and in society.

Antisemitism often occurs in environments in which racism and other forms of bigotry are tolerated. In this Teaching Idea, students will learn about the overall rise in acts of hate in schools and then examine one story that illustrates how acts of antisemitism, racism, and other forms of hate can overlap. They will probe the causes and impact of such incidents and consider positive ways that communities can respond.

Note: News stories covering hate speech may include offensive images and slurs. Please preview the articles before sharing them with your students. When sharing a resource with offensive language, it is important to acknowledge the terms and set guidelines for students about whether or not to speak them when reading aloud or quoting from the text. As always when discussing sensitive topics that may provoke feelings of fear, anger, or concern, it is helpful to revisit your class contract and remind students of your classroom norms for respectful and safe discussion.

This mini-lesson is designed to be adaptable. You can use the activities in sequence or choose a selection best suited to your classroom. It includes:

  • 2 activities
  • Recommended articles, for exploring this topic

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this text set, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

News stories covering hate speech may include offensive images and slurs. When sharing a resource with offensive language, it is important to acknowledge the terms and set guidelines for students about whether or not to pronounce them when reading aloud or quoting from the text. As always when discussing sensitive topics that may provoke feelings of fear, anger or concern, it is helpful to revisit your class contract and remind students of your classroom norms for respectful and safe discussion.

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Activities

Activities

Read the brief CBS News affiliate article Acts of Hate Rise Among American Teens with your students. (Note: This article was published in November 2018, but the trends described in the article continue today. For an analysis of the most recent FBI report on hate crimes, consider sharing this CBS News report.)

Use the Iceberg Diagram teaching strategy to analyze the trends described in the articles and explore potential reasons why acts of hate are on the rise among American teens. At the tip of the iceberg, write “the rise in acts of hate among American teens.” Ask your students:

Then, move to the bottom of the diagram and invite students to consider the underlying causes of this trend. Ask your students:

  • What are some of the episodes of hate referenced in the article?
  • What other examples have you heard about?
  • Have there been similar incidents in or near your own community?
  • How would you account for the rise in acts of hate among American teens? 
  • How might these acts be a reflection of what is happening in adult society or in students’ families?

The Washington Post article A Black Principal, Four White Teens and the ‘Senior Prank’ That Became a Hate Crime explores an incident involving racist, homophobic, and antisemitic graffiti on a high school campus in Maryland. Read the entire article with your students. (Note: This article includes and discusses offensive language and hate symbols. Preview before sharing with your students.) 1

Then discuss the following questions with your students:

  • How do acts of hate—slurs, name calling, graffiti—impact individuals in targeted groups? 
  • How do they impact people who haven’t been directly targeted? 
  • How do they impact whole communities?
  • Why do you think acts of antisemitism, racism, and homophobia often occur together in schools? What is the relationship between these different acts of hate?

Later in the article, one of the young perpetrators of the hate crime contemplates the motivations and implications of his actions. Other community members weigh in.  

Seth said he just wanted all of them to understand: He is not a racist.

Later, he would explain himself this way: “I never really understood the symbol of the swastika. I knew it was wrong to plaster it somewhere. I didn’t learn exactly what [the Nazis] were doing to the Jews until I went to the Holocaust Museum. I never learned that they were mutilated. I knew that they were, like, burned. But I never learned that they had experiments done on them, were injected with diseases. The school didn’t include that. They just included the burning and the train cars.”

His understanding of the KKK was limited, too, he said. “Some people think it’s just a word, or a symbol or three letters put together. . . . But they were lynching people, hurting people for no good reason.”

Now, he said, he knows. But he still doesn’t believe his actions that night make him a bigot.

“I spray paint one racist thing and, suddenly, I become a racist? Just because I did it doesn’t mean I hate Jews, gay people or black people.”

He was standing before the judge, pleading guilty to a hate crime, but he would not admit that he harbored any hate.

All around him, the adults agreed.

“He will forever be known as the racist kid at Glenelg, but that’s not who Seth is,” his father said in court that day.

“I told him that his act was racist, but don’t let it define him as a racist. He can and I pray that he will go on and do better,” Maxwell Ware, the African American pastor he met with, wrote in a letter supporting him.

“He is not a racist . . . he has a good heart,” his attorney told the judge.

Behind her, Principal Burton was listening. He’d heard Joshua Shaffer’s attorney give a similar speech. When Matthew Lipp was sentenced, he would hear it then too. Tyler Curtiss had written it in a Facebook apology the day after the crime. Tyler, Burton knew, had turned to Jesus, joining a church where he talked openly about the swastikas he painted that night. He had spent months telling his story to Jewish congregations, interfaith groups and the county’s board of rabbis. Come the day of his sentencing, Tyler would say: “I hold no hatred toward any human being, especially those in the communities that were affected.”

They all believed it was possible to do what they did without really meaning it.

Burton wanted to look them in the eye and say: “You did something very racist. How you don’t think you’re a racist, I don’t know.”

What he did know was what they’d been taught in school: Glenelg covered the Holocaust and the Klan in detail, in U.S. history and American government and world history and in the books they read for language arts. 2

Discuss with your students:

  • Is there a difference between committing an act of racism or antisemitism and being a racist or antisemite? Does the distinction change the impact the act has on a community? Consider using the video How To Tell People They Sound Racist as a launchpad for this part of the discussion. 

If time allows, continue discussing these issues with the following questions:

  • What other problems did this incident of hate reveal in the community?
  • What is an appropriate response by a community when members have committed acts of hate? What should justice look like? What should the consequences be for the perpetrators and how might they atone for their actions?
  • How should the age of a perpetrator of a hate crime affect how they are punished?
  • This article profiles one of the perpetrators of the crime. What can you learn by focusing on the perpetrator? In what ways can focusing on the perpetrator distract attention from those who were impacted most by the crime?

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