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Seeing a gap in accountability, some push for a new approach to racial harassment in schools

Ryan Johnson for NPR

A cohort of finalists from the 2020-21 Illinois Teacher of the Year contest and other education-focused groups are pushing for legislation that would require schools to have policies specific to racial harassment on the books.

By now, the story of a Sugar Creek Elementary fifth-grader whose race was denigrated by another student has been shared publicly at least twice.

The first time was during a marathon Unit 5 school board meeting in March; a second re-telling occurred during a virtual Bloomington-Normal NAACP meeting in late April.

Each time, the student, Justin, stood before adults in the community to say he was telling his story because what happened to him — and what didn't happen — was not only unfair to him, but unfair to students of color in the entire school district.

"Many (Black) and Brown students have been called names and nothing was done," he said in April. "The impact of this speaks negatively to us as students because we deserve more. (Black and) Brown students face many challenges; discrimination should not be one of them."

The incident of name-calling that Justin was referring to goes like this: In late February, he was playing a game with other kids at recess when he called a ball out of bounds.

Another male student, who is white, responded by looking at him, telling him to shut up and calling him a "black monkey."

"I was in disbelief and wasn't really sure why he would call me that," Justin said during the April NAACP meeting. "I was mentally hurt and was confused as to why he would say that."

In the immediate aftermath, that's where the story ended: Justin said he didn't tell any adults, thinking nothing would come of saying anything. A couple of days later, he confided in a friend who then told school staff.

But neither he, nor his mother, Ericka Ralston, who has previously run for Unit 5 school board, felt satisfied by anyone's response.

Ralston said staff assured her that Justin and the student were friends; she said she raised him to be forgiving and didn't feel that solved the issue of racism at the incident's core. Staff also said the student offered to apologize to saying the phrase "in Justin's vicinity," but not admitting to saying directly to him, Ralston said.

"We still don't know what his disciplinary action was — they say, 'Oh, well it's a privacy thing,'" she said. "He gets to say this to my student, in front of everybody, but I don't get to know what his punishment was. What happened? Who held him accountable?"

U.S. Governmental Accountability Office: 48% of K-12 bullying incidents were related to race over two-year survey

A refrain from Ralston repeated in a subsequent interview with WGLT and put forth by attendees of that late April NAACP meeting: Justin's story, while still being his own, is not unheard of in Bloomington-Normal schools.

"Schools, please stop it," B-N NAACP first vice president Carla Campbell-Jackson said during the meeting. "Do not be oblivious: Every one of our youth council members have shared the issues they contend with, from being called racial names to (students) touching their hair. It is a serious matter and it needs to be addressed."

Ralston went a step further, saying that school districts' claims to have a zero-tolerance policy for racism or racial harassment loses meaning when those incidents aren't addressed.

"There is bullying going on in our schools — and I mean big-time, especially in junior high. There is racism, big-time, going on inside our schools. We have got to get ahead of it," Ralston said. "In order for us to get ahead of it, we have got to stop acting like it's not happening (or) like it's not a big deal that it's happening."

Official, wide-ranging data covering racist incidents in Illinois schools doesn't exist; a national survey of K-12 students by the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) published in November found that 5.2 million students were bullied in the 2018-19 school year, with 1 in 4 — or 1.3 million — students becoming targets because of their identity. Of the identities targeted for harassment, race is the most common, most reported.

The GAO survey relied on news articles, interviews with more than two dozen education and civil rights groups, the Education’s School Crime Supplement to the Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey and the School Survey on Crime and Safety.

As a caveat, the study authors noted the latter two studies they looked at did "not contain detailed, descriptive information about the hostile behaviors that occur in K-12 schools," which prompted them to gather details from other sources — such as news articles — to determine what kind of bullying or harassment occurs.

Kristal Shelvin
Unit 5 diversity, equity and inclusion chief Kristal Shelvin.

In Unit 5, diversity, equity and inclusion chief Kristal Shelvin said administrators are looking at collecting exactly this kind of data.

Typically, an incident like the one Justin described — although Unit 5 did not speak to his case specifically — would fall under the categories of either bullying or harassment and, if put into the district's data portal, be reported as such. Shelvin said administrators have seen an ability to report whether those actions are related to a student's identity and plan to include that data going forward.

"This is a (software) action we haven't explored, so some people used it, some didn't," she said. "I would say by next year, there will be consistency about including that information when or if there is a harassment or bullying case."

While that data would be quantitatively useful, it doesn't guarantee that all incidents will be reported to staff, meaning it likely wouldn't capture the extent to which such incidents occur between students.

Justin, specifically, said he initially didn't tell any adults because he didn't think it would do any good.

"I didn't feel like anything was going to be done to him, so I chose not to say anything to the school staff. I felt like they wouldn't believe me," he said.

While not specific to identity-related bullying or harassment, results from the federal GAO survey showed less than half of students bullied in the 2018-19 school year reported the incident(s) to "a teacher or another adult at the school."

The reasons for this vary, ranging from a fear of retaliation or a disbelief in the efficacy of the school system to respond accordingly.

In Illinois, that's where the Racism-Free Schools Act could make a difference, according to its proponents.

"The reason that kids go to Twitter and TikTok and Instagram is because they don't feel like anything is going to get done."

There's a history of the state's legislature putting requirements on schools regarding bullying and harassment among students: In 2007, the Illinois School Code was amended to create a requirement for all schools to develop a policy specific to bullying.

In 2010, lawmakers went a step further and put a definition to the term via Public Act 96-0952. Seven years later, yet another law took effect in 2017, requiring schools to "regularly communicate" their bullying policies and reporting methods to students and parents.

Now, some fellows with Teach Plus Illinois are pushing for the state to require schools to have policies on the books that define what racist incidents are and how school districts will address them.

Brandon Thornton
Lyndsie Schlink
Bloomington teacher Brandon Thornton.

Bloomington teacher Brandon Thornton was one of those Teach Plus fellows — and he's still advocating for the proposal, which continues to be refined since its inception a year-and-a-half ago.

"We started thinking about how there's really no protection for racial harassment in the same way that we take sexual harassment very seriously: It's very strategic, it's very defined and there's a system to follow," Thornton said in an interview.

"Throughout the entire process of sexual harassment claims, both parties are protected. We started thinking that's just not true for racial harassment. ... There's no systems in place."

With schools already legally required to have sexual and general harassment policies on the books, Thornton said proponents of the proposal want to see policies that address race-related bullying or harassment added as well.

School districts would have the leeway to define what constitutes a racist act and how they would handled it; the ask is only for compliance.

"The legislation would just require they have some sort of policy. We, as a Teach Plus cohort, have a model policy that we think would work in different parts of the state, but that's just a guidance thing," Thornton said. "We wanted to give districts time to work things out with their own attorney, on what compliance and definitions would work for their school."

Thornton emphasized the requirement for a policy to be on the books is not about punishment.

On the Racism-Free Schools website, the proposal is defined as asking "every school in Illinois to adopt a policy that defines unacceptable acts of racism, clearly communicates reporting procedures that protect and empower victims, and outlines a range of consequences for violations that educate, repair, and prevent future harm."

"If there's a racist incident, typically, it goes viral on TikTok, or Twitter, or Facebook — sometimes the school is the last to find out about it," Thornton said. "Then there is so much damage control and perpetrator and victim's privacy is out there."

"I feel like the reason that kids go to Twitter and TikTok and Instagram is because they don't feel like anything is going to get done," he continued. "They're trying to expose this because they feel like this is the fastest way to justice. I understand the urge to do that, but it doesn't allow for any room in repairing that relationship. We're hoping this can change that."

Proposed legislation did not make it to the General Assembly in the previous session; according to the movement's website, the proposal is being refined even further so as to avoid "putting undue burdens on teachers and administrators."

"There has to be accountability."

Asked whether a policy would have helped her son's situation, Ralston said it would all hinge on the people who would enforce such a policy.

"I don't disagree there needs to be a policy in place — there needs to be some procedures that take place when they come across this," she said. "You have to hold people accountable. Just like you would hold students accountable, teachers need to be held accountable as well, especially if they say things like, 'Oh that's just the way kids are,' or 'Stop being a tattletale.' That's not acceptable. You need to know (racism) and be able to call it out when it's happening."

In the vein of accountability, Ralston said she's renewed plans to run for school board in 2023. Previously, she ran in 2021 and said she lost by around 500 votes. Ralston said she hadn't intended to announce her plans during the same NAACP meeting at which Justin spoke, but, at the time, she felt particularly energized.

"We have a great school board; we have some great people in place," she said. "But it could be better, considering that we have a lot of stuff going on in our community that is being swept under the rug."

Thornton, too, could point to Bloomington-Normal area examples of why a clearly defined policy and method of handling specifically racist incidents could help the local community at-large.

"We've seen locally TikToks with kids recreating blackface or (the death of ) George Floyd and maybe the administrator saying, 'We'll do something about it,'" he said. "That's not enough for parents, it's not enough for the community. We owe it ourselves to fix these divisions."

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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