SALT LAKE CITY — When Allison Martin read earlier this school year about five students from Weber High School taking turns yelling a racial slur in a video shared through social media, it brought back painful memories of an assembly gone wrong when she was a teacher at Alta High in 2011.
She recalled the public uproar when a student covered his head in what looked like a Ku Klux Klan hood, and how the school and district responded with apologies and training for select groups of educators and students.
“It’s incredibly disappointing and just super heartbreaking to know that it continues to happen, you know, in our day and in our country,” Martin said.
But, Martin, who is now an assistant vice principal at Northwest Middle School in Salt Lake City, is careful not to villainize students who often don't understand the racial overtones of their antics or the damage done to those offended. She also has empathy for officials stunned by the embarrassing episodes and left scrambling to respond and restore the students' and the community's confidence.
“There are a lot of good-hearted educators out there trying to address things that they have no knowledge of how to address,” Martin said.
In response to what happened at Weber High School, Weber School District is searching for a tolerance training program to provide training to students and staff, according to district spokesman Lane Findlay. So far, they’ve formed a committee that has reached out to the University of Utah to inquire about possible programs.
But Martin, who was among those selected for training after the Alta High School incident and who sought a doctorate in educational leadership and policy with a focus on social justice in education because of her experience, and other experts say the training that school districts launch after a racial incident should not be one-time events, but ongoing instruction to students and educators to prevent — and not just respond to — racially tone-deaf gaffes and insults among students.
“It’s not enough to think that (racism) might happen,” Martin said. “Assume that it’s going to.”
Subtle and unrecognized
The Utah State Board of Education's Title VI policy says no one can be denied participation in or benefits from an education, regardless of race, color or national origin. Though Title VI is intended to be a check on racial discrimination in schools, Irene Yoon, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Utah, said a subtle undercurrent of discrimination can still exist.
She said it can manifest in a teacher not encouraging minorities to take AP or honors classes, which sends an implicit message that some races can’t perform academically or aren't interested in performing on that level. She said recognizing subtle racism takes self-reflection on the part of teachers and administrators who may not be aware of what school is like for students of color.
“That’s the kind of implicit school culture and school climate issue that I think, again, can be harder to take on if it doesn’t seem like there’s an active problem,” she said.
Martin said that lack of awareness can lead to an unintended episode like that among the Weber High students. She explained how youth can lack understanding about race. When white students hear rappers use the n-word, they may think it’s OK for anyone to say it, she said, without realizing the negative associations the word has. They may view a white pillowcase with eye-holes as a costume without knowledge of the garb worn by the KKK.
She explained that minorities will naturally see such incidents, subtle or overt, as race- or discrimination-based, while the majority will see it as an accidental coincidence or good-natured trolling.
Martin said the first step to effectively handling racism in schools is ongoing training to prepare administration and teachers for when the racism occurs. Because more than 80 percent of teachers and administrators in U.S. public schools are white, according to “The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce” report from the U.S. Department of Education, Martin said those educators need training to recognize and respond to racism in schools.
Ben Rasmussen, the Utah State Board of Education law director, said the state board has no policy requiring districts to have any sort of anti-racism training for teachers, administration or students. Any type of tolerance program or student behavioral issues are dealt with by the school districts, according to Mark Peterson, the public relations director for the Utah State Board of Education.
Martin said the fallout after the Alta High assembly went beyond those insulted by the incident. She said the teachers, students and parents who didn't fully grasp the insidious nature of racism and its impact on a community became defensive, calling the reaction overblown.
Some administrators wanted to ignore the public reaction, expecting it to blow over. “They didn’t want to address the problem because by addressing it, then they acknowledged that it existed, and then there was a lot of shame that went along with acknowledging it,” Martin said.
But the Canyons School District decided to address it and arranged for a representative from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program to lead a training.
Martin attended the training, which was her first exposure to race issues. “It was an eye-opening experience,” she said. “I began to understand how much racism impacts students’ lives across the school system.”
Following the training, Martin tried to implement what she learned, but didn't find the same interest or concern at school. The program got lost in the shuffle of a change in the school's administration and the decision to make the tolerance training optional.
Theresa Martinez, an associate professor at the University of Utah who has been teaching anti-racism classes, workshops and trainings for more than 20 years, said that anti-racism trainings are most effective when the school administration is fully supportive and involved in the training.
Asked if tolerance training is ongoing in Canyons School District, spokesman Jeff Haney said in an email that the district "remains steadfast in its drive to maintain safe and welcoming learning environments,” and uses the Schoolwide Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports program that trains teachers to teach their students to respect each others’ personal space and property. He said the school district is “dedicated to acting quickly and appropriately to violations of the Board of Education-approved anti-discrimination policy.”
Yoon explained that ongoing, continuous training that involves conversations with people of other races helps overcome the anxiety of talking about race and fear of offending minorities.
Once teachers and administration understand and get comfortable talking about race issues, they know how to best respond to race-related problems when they arise, Martin said.
Yoon agreed, stressing the importance of providing training in communities with few minority students. “What’s really important is that in predominantly white communities kids are still learning messages (about race) — even if they’re implicit about who belongs here,” she said.
There is research on diversity training for organizations, but very little on anti-racism training for schools. While diversity training focuses on sensitivity and understanding toward people of different cultures and ethnicities, it fails to address the societal issues of oppression and inequality that anti-racism training provides.
Most of the studies about teaching anti-racism techniques show there’s at least a short-term positive effect on lowering measured prejudice levels, according to an article published in Australian Psychologist.
Martinez said there is a need for research on the long-term effects of anti-racism training, because positive outcomes might not come until months later. But among research and workshop moderators, there’s a consensus on a few key techniques that make anti-racism workshops and trainings effective:
• Define racism accurately
Racism isn’t only lynchings of the past or white supremacist demonstrations today; it can be more subtle and pervasive in everyday interactions, according to Karen Suyemoto, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. To address both personal and societal issues around racism, a workshop must define racism as a system of inequality among people where one race receives more advantage and opportunity than another.
• Have open discussion
Martinez said an effective anti-racism workshop must be structured around open and respectful discussion, and discourage people from refuting others’ experiences. Calling others racist will put people on the defensive, but sharing personal experiences will facilitate better conversation.
• Historical perspective, re-education
A key component of training is a “re-education” of the history of racism in the United States, according to Judith Katz in her book “White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-racism Training.” When Martinez teaches this topic she said her students are shocked by what they didn’t know about discrimination against minorities and the police brutality in the 1960s during the civil rights movement.
• Multi-media learning
Martinez said students respond best when teachers use various forms of storytelling. In one study, researchers showed high school students an anti-racism film, and when the students discussed the film after watching it, they retained their attitude changes about race one month later.
Hearing personal stories about the effects of racism can also help change perspectives. Suyemoto conducted research with high school students and found that when students heard stories by those racially different from themselves, they better understood social justice and were more aware of racism.
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Some anti-racism workshop moderators have found role-play is most effective in helping people learn anti-racism. Irene Ota, the diversity coordinator for the College of Social Work at the University of Utah, teaches anti-discrimination response workshops where she presents various scenarios of discrimination and asks people to role-play calling out and stopping the discrimination. “You can talk about (discrimination) all you want, but if you don’t have the skills to do something, some kind of action, then what good is it going to do you?” Ota said.
Alexandria Magee, a former student at Alta High School, attended the 2011 training. Six years after the training, she said she still remembers a role-playing demonstration where someone intervened in a bullying situation, which taught her the lesson, “if you see something, speak out.”
Some students will feel guilty about having more privilege because of their race, but good programs teach them to take that guilt and do something positive, Martinez said.