How to Handle the Rising Tide of Hate in Schools

We shouldn’t give up on the boys in the viral Nazi-salute prom photo.

Baraboo High School boys make what appear to be Nazi salutes in a group photo.
The Baraboo High School students posting for a picture before their prom last spring. Peter Gust of Wheel Memories

The Kids is Slate’s science-based parenting column, assessing the latest research around children’s health, development, and well-being.

We live, in theory, in a country where hate-based discrimination is unacceptable—where it’s not OK to persecute people for their religion or the color of their skin. So how should we deal with acts of hate committed by our youngest and most formative citizens?

We’re confronting that question anew this week after a photo of roughly 60 boys in Baraboo, Wisconsin, posing before their prom last spring, went viral on Twitter. Almost all the boys were making what looked like Nazi salutes, and one in front was grinning broadly, making what appears to be a “white power” hand sign.

The story behind the photo is still unclear. One Baraboo student claimed that the boys were instructed to pose that way by their professional photographer, and that they “weren’t paying attention at all,” implying that they didn’t recognize the significance of what they were doing. (The photographer has since removed the photo from his website, replacing it with a bizarre tirade.) One of the few who didn’t salute countered that it was clear enough to him what was happening: “I knew what my morals were and it was not to salute something I firmly didn’t believe in,” he told journalist Jules Suzdaltsev, who was among the first to share the photo publicly.

On Monday, the Baraboo School District administrator released a statement. “Let us be very clear: hate has no home in the Baraboo School District,” it said. “The school district and local authorities continue to investigate, speaking with the students and families involved to determine how and why this photo was taken.”

It’s still unclear what the consequences will be, if any, for the offenders.

The situation raises important questions: How should schools respond to incidents like this, and what kind of consequences are appropriate? If the goal is to prevent hate incidents like this from happening again—and, ideally, to change the racist trajectory these kids seem to be taking—what interventions are effective? Will shaming or punishing these boys scare them into better behavior or just push them more squarely down a path of white supremacy?

It’s a path more and more youth seem to be taking. According to a new FBI report, hate crimes in K–12 schools increased by 37 percent in 2017, and more than 1 in every 10 hate crimes in the U.S. happened at schools and colleges. Data collected by the Anti-Defamation League suggests that anti-Semitic incidents in particular increased last year by 60 percent. Incidents like the one at Baraboo are happening in U.S. schools every day—it’s just that few go viral.

Last month, for instance, at least six teachers in Middleton, Idaho, dressed up for Halloween as a border wall that said “Make America Great Again,” while another seven dressed up as Mexicans. In Rochester, Minnesota, two high school students dressed up as Ku Klux Klan members and then posed with another person dressed in blackface. In September, a white student in Monroe, Louisiana, put a noose around a black classmate’s neck; a Kentucky student choked a 10-year-old schoolmate after calling him the N-word; high school football fans in California chanted, “Build the wall” to students from a rival, majority-Latino high school; and in Michigan, a swastika was painted on a Catholic school wall.

What do we do in the face of so much hate? So far, it seems the Baraboo school has taken the right steps: It spoke out against the incident, and it promised an investigation. That last bit is important, because a key question is whether this incident is indicative of a broader problem in the community or just, somehow, a weird isolated fluke. “It’s really important that they understand what happened, and all the circumstances around it,” says Jinnie Spiegler, the curriculum director at the Anti-Defamation League in New York City. It’s unlikely that these teens didn’t realize they were making a Nazi salute, but kids can have different levels of understanding; they may not always know the significance of the salute or that it is specifically anti-Semitic. Sometimes, a Nazi salute or a swastika is treated as “a general symbol for hate, and young people don’t even necessarily know what the origins of the symbol is and what it means and the impact that it has on people,” Spiegler says.

Yet incidents like this, even if they seem surprising or out of character, often do reflect deeper systemic problems in the community, so schools need to research if they are part of a pattern. Have there been other reports of hate speech or identity-based bullying? With Baraboo, the answer seems to be a resounding yes, according to student accounts. On Twitter, Suzdaltsev said that, after posting the photo, he was “flooded with messages from students” and that “it sounds like there is a lot of racist bullying and the school tends to do nothing about it.” One student told him: “I was called queer and a faggot too many times by students both on and off school property.” Another student wrote that “the day after President Trump was elected, I heard one of [the students in the photo] shouting ‘White Power!’ in the hallway.” She says she immediately told a school official, who responded that, among other things, she “should get a tougher skin.”

Often, a hate incident may seem to come out of nowhere but actually turns out to be one among many—it’s just that others have been swept under the rug. “In my own research, in dealing with schools, I’ve seen this quite a bit,” says Peter Simi, a sociologist at Chapman University in California and the author of American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate. “Denial has been our biggest enemy.”

Spiegler agrees: “Principals, they communicate that it’s not OK, but then they just move on,” she says. “They don’t want to feel like this is reflective of their community.”

What’s needed after these incidents is the exact opposite—for schools to acknowledge the incident and take meaningful steps to change school culture. But how? Simi says that engaging with students, including those responsible for and involved in the hateful incidents, is crucial. “We have to listen to them: What is it that’s attracting you, what’s motivating you to have these ideas, these beliefs?” Certainly, they have to listen to the students who have been targeted, too. It’s also wise for schools to reach out to local human relations commissions or a local branch of the Anti-Defamation League, which works with schools to tackle bias and bullying through different types of training programs. They also have free online resources such as teacher lesson plans. Teaching Tolerance, another anti-bias and social justice organization, has free classroom resources, too. If you’re a parent concerned about the climate at your kids’ school, it’s not a bad idea to tell a teacher, principal, or district administrator about these programs. It’s also wise to have regular conversations at home about race and racism, as I discussed in an earlier column.

As for figuring out appropriate punitive consequences for the boys in the Baraboo photo, that’s tough. Schools need to send a message that they won’t tolerate hate, and punishing offenders does that. At the same time, it’s not a good idea to be overly punitive with kids who may not fully understand what they did, because that can make them feel marginalized and alienated—and research suggests that these kinds of feelings draw kids even more strongly towards hateful ideologies.

Ideally, Spiegler says, consequences should involve not only punishment but also education. “They need to understand the impact of what they did, and how other kids in that school feel,” she explains. She points to a recent ruling in which teens who had vandalized a historic black schoolhouse were ordered by a judge to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and read books written by black, Jewish, and Afghan authors. “They’re still children, so we have to believe that change can happen with education and with sensitivity,” Spiegler says. Parents can help at home, too, by regularly talking with kids about diversity, bigotry, and hate and perhaps discussing incidents in the news like the one in Baraboo and why they are so hurtful. You can even work these kinds of lessons into bedtime reading: The Anti-Defamation League recommends a number of excellent books that introduce kids to social justice issues. Parents also need to be good role models. We need to be mindful of how we talk about and treat others and try not to reinforce stereotypes.

Kids do stupid things and always have, especially in the presence of their peers. We shouldn’t excuse hateful behavior—but we need to keep in mind that teens can royally screw up, learn from their mistakes, and still grow into decent people. The kids we might feel disgusted by today will soon become adults shaping the identity and direction of our country. Let’s step in and help them overcome this rising tide of hate while we still can.