Editorial: Strong response needed to hate speech

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Reports of hate speech surfaced this month at three schools in Amherst and Hadley, mirroring a growing trend nationwide in the weeks after Donald Trump was elected president.

The incidents at Amherst College, Amherst Regional Middle School and Hopkins Academy in Hadley targeted various groups with discriminatory and vile language and symbols. All three schools responded by condemning the actions and renewing their commitment to teaching tolerance and civility.

The most pervasive report is the men’s cross country team’s “toxic culture” which produced a series of “racist, misogynist and homophobic” email and social media exchanges between June 2013 and August 2015. The despicable language included descriptions of specific women in sexually explicit terms including “meatslabs,” as well as racist comments.

The college reacted immediately after the story was reported during the weekend. Members of the cross country team were suspended from all athletic activities, including participation in the current indoor track and field season.

Amherst College President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin announced that former state Supreme Judicial Court Judge John M. Greaney will assist in an investigation of the exchanges among team members “which are supposedly meant to ‘welcome’ new teammates and introduce them to the culture of the team,” and that “knowledge of the facts will guide the college’s decision about disciplinary process.”

Greaney’s investigation should include determining the factors leading to the “toxic culture” acknowledged by team members, how it was allowed to fester for at least two years with no action taken by the college and whether other athletes engaged in such behavior.

At the middle school in Amherst, reports of anti-Semitic acts by students led to assemblies and a special curriculum last week, according to interim principal, Patty Bode. Those discussions focused on bullying, harassment and the history of anti-Semitism and appropriate responses.

Bode wrote to parents and guardians Dec. 6 that it was important to focus on the issue after “the incidents occurred in various forms with a number of different students in the form of comments, so-called jokes and display of symbols.” This week, Bode declined to elaborate on the specific nature of the incidents or what, if any, disciplinary measures were taken.

In the absence of more details — including exactly what happened over how long a period of time and involving how many students — it is hard to gauge whether the school’s reaction is sufficient, or whether continuing discussions examining the roots of intolerance and involving parents and other community members would be helpful.

In Hadley, Hopkins Academy officials called police Dec. 2 after becoming aware of a video posted on social media by a student that included racial slurs and advocated for violence and white supremacy. Police determined that the threats did not target a specific individual and said there is no evidence that the video was made at the school.

School officials declined to say if the student, who is not a resident of Hadley, was disciplined.

The incident led to a dialogue that continues with students and teachers discussing how to foster a climate at Hopkins that is respectful of everyone’s civil rights. While the video is deplorable, the resulting conversation promoting tolerance is a useful way for one school to address the growing problem of hate incidents nationwide.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Alabama, analyzed 857 hate incidents reported directly to its website or by the media in the 10 days following Trump’s election. Most were messages of hate and intolerance involving graffiti and verbal harassment. Massachusetts ranked fifth highest of any state, with 42 incidents.

The most common setting for hateful speech was at K-12 schools and colleges, where more than 300 incidents were reported across the country, according to the law center, which describes “a national outbreak of hate, as white supremacists celebrate Donald Trump’s victory.”

In this alarming climate, educators must send a clear message that hateful acts of any kind are not acceptable at any age, and that a top priority is ridding schools and colleges of a culture that encourages intolerance and vile behavior.