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Schools struggle to deal with post-election harassment, bullying

Nov 21, 2016

Some school leaders and parents are wrestling with how to respond to hateful incidents in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.

There have been a number of such incidents reported in schools across Michigan since election day.

One happened at Royal Oak Middle School the day after the election, when a  group of students chanted “build the wall” in the cafeteria — an apparent reference to Trump’s pledge to build a wall across the Mexican border.

Alicia Ramon is the mother of the seventh-grade girl who took a video of that incident, which has since gone viral.

Ramon says the chant was an organized effort by a few kids who want table to table encouraging kids to join in. And she says it clearly directed at Latino students.

“My daughter immediately texted it to me and said, ‘I’m scared,’” Ramon said.

But Ramon said her daughter had seen and suffered racist harassment at school before. That prompted the ACLU to send a letter to the school, outlining some of those incidents and calling for the school to apologize and take other “minimal steps” to deal with the school’s “racial climate.”

The group said it was encouraged by the “swift and positive reply” it received from the district’s superintendent, Shawn Lewis-Larkin. However, the already-charged situation was heightened Friday, when a noose was found hanging in a boys’ bathroom at the middle school.

A student who confessed to that has been “removed from middle school until further notice,” Lewis-Larkin said in a letter to parents Sunday.

The principal and superintendent will also “conduct meetings with each grade at the middle school to reiterate and reinforce our school’s strict policies on intimidation, threats, harassment and bullying. We will remind our students that inappropriate words or actions will be taken seriously and carry serious consequences,” Lewis-Larkin said.

But Royal Oak Middle School is far from alone in dealing with a reported uptick in racist bullying and harassment post-election.

Lena Kamal, a coordinator with the Michigan chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, says the group has been besieged by calls since the election about incidents of anti-Muslim harassment, mainly in some Metro Detroit public schools.

“It’s almost an epidemic,” Kamal said. “This is definitely something we haven’t seen. At all.”

Those include several incidents where Muslim girls had their hijabs (headscarves) pulled at or off, Kamal said. It also included comments to Muslim students like “9/11 was bad for us, but 11/9 is bad for you.”

In general, Kamal says schools seem to be struggling to deal with these incidents.

CAIR and other groups are reaching out to answer questions and provide resources, but the most important thing a school can do is show support for victims. “Allow people to know they’re not alone,” she said.

Ramon says her daughter wasn’t initially supported by the adults in school, though the response has improved with time. And the community at large wasn’t unanimously supportive of her daughter’s decision to record the chant either.

“There are people who are very upset with us. People who are very upset with her,” Ramon said.

But she says a group of parents and students are now working with the school district to fight back, and she’s encouraged by that: “We’re coming together to try to bring about this change in our community and in our schools, more reflective of who we the majority of us — are.”