‘Holding our students accountable’: Group approaches school board about policy for hate speech, symbols

The school board has been asked by a group of Brown County High School students to consider implementing a written accountability plan to address hate speech and symbols in the school district.

Brown County High School Students for Equity attended the May 6 school board meeting via Zoom.

There is no legal definition of hate speech in United States law, but Josephine Fields, the chair and founder of Students for Equity, explained that it is generally “any form of expression through which speakers intend to vilify, humiliate, or incite hatred against a group or a class of people on the basis of race, religion, sexual identity, gender identity, ethnicity, disability or national origin.”

“Hate speech and symbols, or any language that is derogatory or offensive to certain groups of students, greatly intrudes on the learning environment by isolating and attacking groups of students for their identity, factors they have no control over in their lives,” said Students for Equity member Wylah Brahaum.

“They make students with certain identities feel unsafe and unwelcomed at school, which affects their ability to have a quality learning experience at Brown County Schools.”

Fields founded Students for Equity in December 2019. The group’s mission is to “promote equity and inclusion among everyone in Brown County Schools and Brown County as a community regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, socio-economic class, and able-bodiedness.”

Students for Equity members Abby Padgett and Tristen Shields also spoke to the board.

<strong>The proposal</strong>

An accountability plan would outline the procedures the administration could take to address a student who has used hate speech or symbols.

Under the group’s proposal, the first offense would result in administrators having a conversation with the student about why they chose to use hate speech or symbols.

The administrator would explain why that form of speech “contributes to an inequitable and non-inclusive school environment and that it contributes to the unjust marginalization of entire communities,” Brahaum said.

If the student uses the same form of hate speech again, the second step would be for administrators to have another conversation and assess the motive of the student before deciding to pursue any disciplinary or educational action.

The two-step plan would give students the opportunity to “learn from their choice, ultimately creating a more educated, tolerant community.”

“Overall, an accountability plan for hate speech and symbols will contribute to an overall more inclusive and equitable school environment so that every single student, regardless of their identity, can get a quality education and feel safe at school without facing the negative environment created by hate speech and symbols,” Brahaum said.

Students for Equity has started educating their peers about hate speech and symbols and their effects. In February, the group held a workshop that taught students ways to respond to such speech. One of those ways is through education.

“The educational method is when students explain the history of a certain hate speech or symbol and why such symbol currently contributes to oppression,” Padgett said.

“This method ensures that students who are simply ignorant of the effects of their words and actions do not repeat their behavior.”

The district has a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee of staff members that was created in 2018. The school board approved a resolution last November committing to ensuring that every student, staff and faculty member feels respected and welcomed in every school building, no matter what. Students for Equity said that a plan for addressing hate speech and symbols is also in the district’s DEI policy.

“Brown County Schools have struggled with incidents of hate speech and symbols in the past, and such speech has become common background noise in the halls. However, we are not the only school in Indiana to have these types of issues,” Shields said.

In 2016, the superintendent of Monroe County Community School Corporation banned the Confederate flag in and on Bloomington High School North’s property after having a meeting with students who were made uncomfortable by four students wearing the flag to school one day.

“Some students reportedly cried when they saw the flags, some students reportedly heard usage of anti-LGBT rhetoric from the group, and many students called it ‘intimidating hate speech,’” Shields said.

“It was a clear intrusion on the safe learning environment desired by every school.”

Incidents similar to what happened at Bloomington High School North are “far too common in Brown County Schools,” the group said.

“Which is why Brown County Schools needs to join Bloomington High School North in combating such issues by writing an accountability plan for hate speech and symbols,” Shields said.

“While Students for Equity recognizes a plan of this nature may not be at first welcomed by some members of our community, that is where Students for Equity plans to step in,” Fields said.

“We have been dedicated to educating our community for the past year and a half on why hate speech and symbols are not only unacceptable in public schools, but why they contribute to the unjust marginalization of entire communities.”

“By holding our students accountable for their words and actions, we will allow our marginalized students the opportunity to come to school without fear of harassment, and overall promote student performance and mental health,” she continued.

Brown County Schools also has been in the news recently for incidents involving racial slurs. In October, the BCHS yearbook was released with a caption naming a student only as BLACK GUY and not his name. In December, an altered screenshot of the district’s athletics webpage circulated on social media. It was made to look like the page contained the N-word.

<strong>Board response</strong>

Board President Carol Bowden thanked Students for Equity for their presentation. She wanted to see those with disabilities be better recognized in their plan. Bowden wears hearing aids and has moderate deafness. She told the group she had been bullied since she was 8.

“I have a special concern about special ed students who are picked on and bullied. My concern about such a policy here, I am speaking for myself and I am not speaking for the board, my concern is that the focus is not equitable all the way across the board,” she said.

“I guarantee there are students in all buildings who do speak unfavorably at special ed students, special needs students. … I want that greatly considered in your presentation and in your education.”

She told the group that the board would take the proposal under advisement. “I appreciate yours words there I want to make sure the focus is equitable across the board,” she said.

Fields said the entire month of April was dedicated to disability awareness in the schools. Students for Equity had high school special education teacher Barb Kelp give a presentation on how to interact with and perceive those who have disabilities.

“In our presentation we did make sure to include disabilities in the list of people who are targeted with hate speech,” she said.

Board member Steve Miller Jr. said the students were “very brave.”

Newest board member Amy Oliver was a teacher in the Brown County Junior High School for five years. She thanked the students for bringing the proposal to the board and bringing it to the attention of the entire school corporation.

“I really do see such a difference in the past year and a half since you started these efforts. It has had people talking about these things in a very educated manner and in a very polite manner,” she said.

“You can really see the effects of what you’re doing. … I really do see the change in the kind of conversations people are having amongst kids and as well as amongst adults.”

Oliver said the students are learning to advocate for something that can be uncomfortable and that people do not want to talk about, but that once they learn how to do that, they can do it anywhere. “I love the learning piece that we’re getting out of it,” she said.

Oliver said that as a teacher, she noticed hate symbols in the school and her classroom, which was difficult. “I didn’t I always feel like I spoke up enough about it,” she said.

“I feel like you give everybody permission to say, ‘I do feel uncomfortable about that and I want to express that to do something about it.’ I am very supportive of the things you are advocating.”

She suggested the group work with the district’s DEI committee to see what type of corporation-wide policies could be implemented. She also suggested consulting with the school district’s lawyer on policy language to make sure the proposed policy is enforceable and will not violate any rights.

“We also want to make sure everybody knows what the policy is and knows how to follow it and that were applying it in an equal and equitable way,” she said.

“It’s a good big picture, hard to do in practice, so we want to make sure we get it right.”

Bowden said the board members would get copies of the presentation, and added that this type of plan could not be put in place overnight.

“We look forward to collaborating with you,” Fields said.