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Leading Conversations about Race and Intolerance in Schools

It’s 2017. Everybody and their mother is writing resolutions, and talking about fresh starts.

A nice sentiment. Unfortunately for schools, change requires more than a metaphorical turning of the page.

2016 saw a scourge of hateful and inflammatory rhetoric. In many cases, these same issues ignited serious debate and cause for renewed concern in the nation’s K12 schools and classrooms.

At River Hill High School in Maryland, a racially charged social media post prompted students and teachers to face these tensions head on.

So, they did what they felt was best—they talked about it.

Let’s talk

As first reported by WBAL-TV, the school organized a day of teaching and discussion focused on the issue of racism in society.

“The students are asking the kinds of questions that are telling us we need to talk about the issues, make sure that everybody understands the issues,” River Hill High School principal Kathryn McKinley told WBAL-TV.

Staff set aside an entire day for students to share their stories, and to find common understanding.

The day started with a schoolwide assembly that introduced students to the values of “One River Hill” and “One Howard County.” The idea: to acknowledge and embrace cultural differences among community members and peers.

Teachers led classroom lessons and workshops on diversity and asked students to share their personal stories, exposing students to new ways of thinking while encouraging classmates to understand and to empathize with different points of view.

River Hill school leaders planned to bring more students in to the conversation by sharing discussion notes.

For more about the event, check out this video report from WBAL-TV:

Key takeaways for your schools

As a new year dawns, chances are good that you already are or one day will face similar tensions, about racism or some other issue in your schools. The River Hill story offers a few insights into how to do that responsibly:

  1. Don’t hide from challenges. Whether it’s an issue of racial inequality or some other challenge, avoiding controversy doesn’t solve the problem. Tackle the challenge up front by acknowledging it, and by having open conversations with members of your school community.
  2. Provide safe ways for students and teachers to communicate. Listening is key. Whether it’s in the classroom, on social media, or through some other channel, give students a safe place to ask questions and report potential abuse.
  3. Parent support is vital. Parents’ views and opinions are critical in shaping how students think and act—so make sure parents have a voice in your discussions. Keep parents updated on the issues, and seek out new ways to ask for their feedback.

As we head into 2017, our nation faces enormous societal challenges. And our schools have a potentially enormous role to play.

As one River Hill student aptly put it to WBAL-TV, “If we can solve [problems] on this level, then we can figure out a way to solve them in this country.”

What steps are you taking to engage students and teachers in important conversations in the New Year? Tell us in the comments.

Want more about how to engage students in times of unprecedented change? Read 3 steps for dealing with post-election disruptions in schools.