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Does your school have a racial harassment policy? A new law requires one on the books by 2024

Children walk down the hallway of an elementary school
Thomas Barwick
Getty Images
The new law mandates that by the 2024-25 school year, school districts must have policies on the books delineating how incidents of alleged harassment or discrimination based on race, color or national origin will be addressed.

A Bloomington High School teacher and former Teach Plus Illinois fellow said the state legislature's recent passage of SB 90, also known as the Racism Free Schools Act, is a victory on multiple fronts for teachers and students alike.

Brandon Thornton is a former fellow with Teach Plus Illinois, an opportunity earned via his recognition as the 2021 East Central Illinois Regional Teacher of the Year. Per its website, educators in the program use their classroom experiences to lobby for legislative or policy changes.

Brandon Thornton, a teacher, smiles in a Bloomington High School classroom.
Lyndsie Schlink
Teacher Brandon Thornton.

"We kind of planted the idea for this Racism Free Schools Act — although it wasn't called that, then. We were just thinking of ways to retain and recruit teachers of color," Thornton said in an interview. "And then every cohort has taken it a little bit further — and now it's on the governor's desk."

SB 90 passed in May after multiple, previous attempts. It mandates that by the 2024-25 school year, school districts must have policies on the books delineating how incidents of alleged harassment or discrimination based on race, color or national origin will be addressed. The policies must be age-appropriate. The Illinois State Board of Education will also create and maintain a database of these incidents.

Thornton called the emergence of the bill "organic," the byproduct of initial conversations on teacher diversity and longevity in which Teach Plus Illinois fellows "thought: 'Well, first we have to ensure the space is productive for students of color so they want to come back to become educators.'"

State law has already required districts to implement policies on handling sexual harassment or incidents of bullying; Thornton said it seemed logical to require specifics on race-based incidents as well.

"You never hear about sexual harassment cases between teachers and students, until it's things that have been, like, taken over by the law," he said. "I think that's important, because you should be able to protect the victim (and) once the public gets a hold of it — we've seen the shaming when people come forward on sexual harassment. I think we need to treat racial harassment in the same, sensitive way."

SB 90 also codifies a district's failure to take remedial or disciplinary action against someone who is known to have committed harassment as a civil rights violation. Thornton said a hope shared by advocates of the bill is that the gravity of racial harassment or discrimination will be conveyed via the existence of these policies.

"What we don't want, as people say, is cancel culture to ruin ... learning opportunities. I think the reason kids go public is because they don't trust that the school will do anything about it — or maybe it's because there's no defined policy," he said. "Schools may handle racism acts a bullying ... and that's oftentimes not enough for kids. I think even students seeing this policy will be a little bit more careful and understand how sensitive it can be — just like when you are reporting sexual harassment. "

The passage of SB 90 is also a victory for Teach Plus Illinois, Thornton said, proving that "teachers can really champion things on the floor." The organization is a national one with individual chapters in 12 states, including Illinois and Indiana. Its goals are to propose and support policies drafted or shaped by teachers.

"When I heard about their mission of teaching teachers how to be policymakers, I didn't really see it," Thornton said. "You don't going into teaching to make policy changes. Now that that's happened, the sky's the limit really, for what Teach Plus Illinois can can dream up."

The Racism Free Schools Act takes affect Aug. 1, 2024.

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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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