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The increases of hate speech incidents have risen, especially in middle schools; new committee meets to address best way to deal with them

PMG FILE PHOTO - The Tigard-Tualatin School District recently informed parents about increases in hate speech incidents at the middle and high school levels. It also made them aware that the district has specific policies on what is considered hate or bias speech. The Tigard-Tualatin School District has reported seeing an increase in "hate speech incidents" in some schools in recent weeks.

"Students are reporting that they have been the victim of hate speech or observed firsthand hate incidents happening in our buildings," Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith wrote in an email sent out to district parents on Oct. 22. "This is not representative of TTSD values or our commitment to ensuring every child that walks through our doors feels welcome, respected, and safe."

A special district advisory committee recently met for the first time to discuss what to do when students act on behaviors that do not make others feel welcome.

District officials have said they have seen an increase in hate speech both through direct student-to-student incidents as well as postings on social media such as Instagram and students sending texts.

Rieke-Smith said often societal issues or whatever issues that students and families are navigating at any given time eventually reach schools as well.

"So, it is no surprise, given the fact that our students really had a year, almost a year and a half, with no regular school and structure and routines, that students are going to act out, and that's what we're seeing," said Rieke-Smith. "But unfortunately, I think also the continued access to social media and other forms of electronic media have fueled our students' imagination and not always helped them be their best selves when they're in our schools."

She said there has been a particular increase in students saying hurtful things to one another at the middle school level.

Rieke-Smith said there has been pushback from some members of the community regarding principals following district policies regarding what to do about hate speech incidents.

The superintendent said the recent district email was also sent out to make the community aware that the Tigard-Tualatin School District has both a school board policy and administrative rules addressing hate speech and bias incidents, both approved in summer 2020. Rieke-Smith said the district's policy addresses how to deal with speech and actions when they occur.

"It falls in line with the State Board of Education that basically now has said that symbols of hate — i.e. swastikas, nooses and Confederate flags — are banned from schools, public schools, and so it follows along those lines," she said.

The superintendent said the Oregon Board of Education wrote its own administrative rules policy based on the one put forward by the Tigard-Tualatin School District.

In addition, the policy outlines the steps administrators will take in investigating such incidents and how to redirect a student involved in such activities, as well as support systems for the victim.

"I want to be really clear, it doesn't matter what the political ideology is," said Rieke-Smith. "This could easily be someone being targeted because they are more to the right and conservative versus left and progressive."

Aishiki Nag, a Tigard High School junior, said before the COVID-19 pandemic, she noticed a lot of so-called hate speech in the form of casual jokes, something that became very normalized in the school environment. She said there were always incidents at the school that included "micro-aggressions" targeting some minority communities and cyberbullying as well.

"The problem now is that a lot of people are continuing to use hate speech not only in casual conversations, but also attacking people directly," she wrote in an email. "It's gotten to a point where people are using it all the time, in places like the hallways, online, at lunch and other public settings."

Nag, who is also a youth councilor on the Tigard City Council, said in order to call attention to the problem, she helped film and produce a video that focused on stories of students who were targeted by hate speech. The video was shared on Tigard High School's Unity Day.

However, Nag said she believes some students didn't take the issue seriously, and some even skipped school that day. Still, that didn't hamper the message she was trying to get across.

"The student stories really struck a (chord) with the student body and hopefully sent a loud, clear message," Nag wrote.

Rieke-Smith said she believes the district has been a leader when it comes to adopting a board policy calling out bias incidents and hate speech. A handful of districts have followed the district's lead since then, she said.

On Oct. 25, the district held its first-ever meeting of a Bias Incidents and Hate Speech Oversight Committee, a group that will advise the school board on the district's Education, Accountability, Solutions and Healing plans, also known as EASH.

"It's well-represented, I think, both by our communities of color as well as our students as well as our white community," Rieke-Smith of the advisory committee, with nearly 20 members.

She said each school will begin to implement the EASH concept and what to do when students engage in behaviors that does not make others feel welcome. The committee is expected to meet again on Dec. 1.

At the same time, Rieke-Smith says the district hasn't lost sight of the fact that "a student does not leave their constitutional rights at the school room door."

However, if a situation substantially interferes with learning, then the school has a right to intervene, she said.

"That's a very high bar, and so we're very thoughtful about that and mindful of that as we navigate each incident," Rieke-Smith said.

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