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Facing Hate and Bias at School

All students have a right to a public education in a safe learning environment. But right now, many of our students are scared, anxious, and feeling threatened. Students and educators around the country are reporting hostile and hateful environments in their schools and communities. They have reported fake deportation notices being handed out and swastikas drawn in bathrooms. They have been targets of hate speech and seen derogatory images like nooses, racist graffiti and threats to our LGBTQ students. When students feel that they are not welcome, their ability to learn and thrive is diminished.

5 Things Educators Can Do to Address Bias in Their School

October 10, 2019

Every day, educators, administrators and students carry with them attitudes and beliefs that may affect their understanding of a situation, their interactions with others, and their decision-making.

If these beliefs are colored by negative stereotypes or biases, they can lead to misunderstandings and an unhealthy school climate, if not outright hostility or conflict.

Hilario Benzon
NEA Human and Civil Rights Dept.

Acknowledging, understanding and addressing our own biases is at the core of the work done by Hilario Benzon, a manager in NEA’s Human and Civil Rights Department. We caught up with Benzon recently to discuss how bias can affect educators and students, and how anti-bias work is critical in our schools and our communities.


Education Leader and Expert Take on Growing White Nationalism in Schools

October 4, 2019
Reports from the FBI, school administrators and advocacy groups that track hate incidents indicate that white nationalism, hate speech and other forms of bigoted extremism are on the rise across the United States.

Download the “Confronting White Nationalism in Schools” Toolkit

Because schools are hubs of our communities – and often the center of interactions among students of diverse races, ethnicities and religions – white nationalists are increasingly targeting young people with their organizing and recruitment efforts.

In a Facebook Live discussion last week, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García sat down with Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, to discuss what educators can do to confront white nationalism in schools


Educators and community unite to build understanding and support for refugees

Recently, the NEA team had a chance to cover the One Sylvania Rally for Refugees where students, educators and community members stood united to hear stories from refugees and community leaders, and learn ways to make a difference and promote tolerance and unity.

This week, we had the chance to follow up with Adam Fineske, Executive Director of Teaching and Learning for the Sylvania School District; Shane Lakatos, Founder of Social Services for the Arab Community; and Megan Picott, educator and Sylvania Education Association member. Each of these folks played a part in creating a district-wide climate of tolerance. Below is an excerpt from our discussion.

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NEA: It seems like the change in the Sylvania community started with the schools. Can you talk a little more about that?

Adam: The Sylvania school district is the second largest employer here. We are the heart of this community. And when the community started to change, that is when we went all in to address those changes.

In the last five to ten years Sylvania has changed culturally and socio-economically. More of our students are receiving free or reduced lunch and we are home to a more diverse population – 25 Syrian refugee families are a part of our community. A proactive approach to how we instruct and communicate with families made the difference in our school.

Shane: My wife and I founded the Social Services for the Arab Community to help immigrants and refugees in our community to find their way in their new country. Sylvania is led by really progressive thinkers and they engaged us in a discussion about how we could better help the school district meet some of the new challenges they might face given the global refugee crisis.

We help educators understand the different needs of immigrant children and refugee children. We are proactively thinking about getting support to children who have gaps in their education because they’ve been living in refugee camps or children who suffer from PTSD.

It’s about how we can help these kids. With that kind of attitude things go really far.

Megan: It was just about a year ago that my colleague and the President of the Sylvania Education Association, Dan Greenberg approached me about joining the Advancing Collaborative Education team- we call it ACES. And in just a year we went from a team of five to a team of 80 educators trained in cultural competency – honestly the training was the best one I have been to in 16 years in education. We walked away with concrete plans for our schools.

NEA: It sounds like some really interesting things are happening. What do you see as the challenges ahead?

Shane: I look at challenges as opportunities. We all watch the news and we see what is happening in the world right now. The refugee crisis isn’t getting any better and we are going to see more families reuniting here in our communities and we need to be ready to welcome them.

We live in a global world and we want our children to understand how to operate within it. Having students join us from Syria or Somalia or Dubai shouldn’t be thought of as a burden, like oh we have to work with more kids who don’t speak English. Instead think of it as an opportunity to teach everyone else about the world. You don’t have to travel overseas to learn a new language and culture!

NEA: What would you offer as advice to other districts who would like to do what Sylvania has done?

Megan: Realize that this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. But never underestimate the value of little things, small gestures. In my school one of the programs we implemented was sending an old fashioned, hand written, snail mailed postcard to every family. All the teachers send them to the families in their class, but so do the cafeteria workers and janitors and administrators. For students and families who receive these in the mail it is really touching, and it says to them, “Hey, we think you are special. We value you. We are glad that you are a part of our community.”

Adam: You have to realize that this is an all-in group effort. Change like this can’t just be driven by teachers or just school board or just administrators. You have to find a unified group that will work together as one.

The word that comes to mind the most is collaboration. It doesn’t always mean saying yes. It means hearing each other out and making the best decision for the greater good.

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VIDEO: Six Tips For Fostering a Positive School Climate

Fakhra Shah knows first-hand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of anti-Muslim slurs and stereotyping. Growing up Muslim in the Bay Area, she’s experienced them her whole life.

As a social studies teacher at Mission High School in San Francisco, one of Shah’s primary goals is to prevent bullying by teaching respect and inclusion. She uses restorative practices and other techniques learned through her peer resources program, encourages varied student perspectives, and creates a warm and supportive environment where all students feel accepted.

In this series of short video excerpts from our NEA interview with Shah, she shares practical tips to improve the school climate in your school community.


National politics increase student fear, anxiety; educators say best solutions are local

by Sandy Jiménez

As a consequence of the 2016 presidential election, nonstop combative communications emanating from the White House and widening immigration raids that threaten to separate families, students are experiencing a variety of feelings ranging from anxiety and fear to powerlessness and vulnerability. Recognizing that even adults can feel overwhelmed and destabilized, educators advise that the best paths to create a positive school climate are at the individual school level.

These were among the points raised on a tele-town hall his month in which educators from across the nation heard strategies on how to address school climate issues, build community trust and empower students though the use of restorative justice, a process that empowers students to resolve conflicts on their own and in small groups.


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In her remarks to the group, Lily Eskelsen García, a Utah elementary school teacher and president of the National Education Association, said:

We do not need to wait for a governor, state legislature, or president to make the change we need. At our buildings and our school districts, we have the most agency to make change. We are the powerful voices. Together, through our dialogue with colleagues and students, and our communities, we can make a wave of change.

Eskelsen García was joined by Fakhra Shah, a San Francisco high school social studies teacher, and Ali Michael, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Michael sparked a national dialogue last November with her viral postelection blog post titled “What should we tell the children?”

In her post, Michael wrote: “Tell them, first, that we will protect them. Tell them that we have democratic processes in the U.S. which make it impossible for one mean person to do too much damage. Tell them that we will protect those democratic processes . . . Tell them, second, that you will honor the outcome of the election, but that you will fight bigotry. Tell them bigotry is not a democratic value, and that it will not be tolerated at your school. Tell them you stand by your Muslim families. Your same sex parent families. Your gay students. Your Black families. Your female students. Your Mexican families. Your disabled students. Your immigrant families. Your trans students. Your Native students.”

Shah and Michael shared a number of ways to assess school climate and foster respectful dialogue. Michael defined a positive school climate this way: “A positive school climate is a place where students can show up to schools and be their full selves and not feel afraid or anxious when sharing their political views . . . feel the safety necessary to learn.” She explained, “When we disagree with other people, let’s support the person and the intention, but confront the impact of what they are saying.”

The most effective steps to establish a positive school climate, said Shah, “require building trust and building community” mainly by giving teachers, staff and students an opportunity to channel their opinions in a safe and respectful manner. Michael sees school climate as a launching point, a way to encourage people to talk to someone with whom they disagree and listen without needing to speak. “With young kids, we need to teach them to learn how to love each other. With older kids, we need to teach them how to discuss their political opinions, and not shout them. And with our colleagues, we need to learn how to call them in, not call them out.”

When building a positive school climate, agreed Shah and Michael, it is important to remember that there is no magic formula, but rather a simple process fueled by listening and creating inclusiveness. You don’t have to be a professional or expert on the topic of social justice, but rather target these issues one step at a time and facilitate trust-building relationships between students and school staff. Creating an inclusive and supportive school space will foster a welcoming and embracing environment.

Some of the strategies educators are using:

Create a Team

  • Find out about the unique skills of each member.
  • Identify any important voices missing from the conversation.
  • Develop a plan for how the team will stay connected.

Understand the Challenges Ahead

  • Deepen your understanding of how difficult issues play out in your school and community.
  • Write down who these issues effect and the impact on your school and community.

Make a Plan for Action

  • Identify the causes of the issues your students, school and community are facing.
  • Set specific and measurable goals (changes to school policy or district policy)
  • Develop a visual map of who holds influence in your school community.
  • Develop a plan for action.

Editorial Note: For resources to build your school climate team and reach out to your community, visit

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Activists fight for educator union-backed initiative to prevent bullying of Muslim students

Soon after the San Diego School Board launched a new initiative to make its schools safer and more welcoming for Muslim students, their program came under attack by right-wing extremist media, including “Breitbart.”

The “Angry Patriot” website reported the story with this headline: “Islamic takeover confirmed—American school surrenders to Sharia law.”

Then an organization called the Freedom Conscience Defense Fund (FCDF) sued the district to stop the Muslim anti-bullying program, claiming the district’s plan violates the U.S. and California constitutions. The attorney for FCDF told the press: “Quite frankly, Christians are getting tired of being kicked around. You can’t call Christmas vacation ‘Christmas vacation’ anymore. It’s got to be called ‘winter holiday’.”

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Unfazed by the right-wing backlash, the president of the San Diego Education Association, Lindsay Burningham, describes the new district policy as “a step in the right direction to making schools safe and welcoming environments for all students, regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation or gender.”

Stan Anjan, executive director of Family and Community Engagement at the district, has reassured the public that the San Diego School system has no intention of teaching Islam as religion or implementing Sharia law. Rather, the district’s multifaceted plan would roll out resources and curriculum about Islamic culture and history to help non-Muslim students better understand Muslims. In addition, the district would provide educational material to families and educators about Islamophobia and would recognize Islamic holidays.

Kevin Beiser, the San Diego School Board’s first openly gay member, was instrumental three years ago in creating the district’s program to prevent the bullying of LGBTQ students, and today he is a major backer of the new initiative to support Muslim students. “My hope is that our continued effort to stop bullying will help students grow up to appreciate diverse cultures,” says Beiser.

The San Diego School Board acted after hearing testimony from Muslim parents about the bullying of their children. In addition, the board took note of a survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) that showed 55 percent of Muslim students in California reported being bullied at school because of their religion. CAIR has also documented an uptick across the nation in the bullying of American Muslim students “following Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election.”

“If we do this right,” says Hanif Mohebia, executive director of CAIR’s San Diego office, “the San Diego Unified School District would be the leading school district in the nation to come up with a robust and beautiful anti-bullying and anti-Islamophobic program.”

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School Climate

Teaching Tolerance receives an alarming number of reports about hate and bias incidents in schools. In response, they created this package of their most-requested school climate materials.


White Nationalism

In the "Confronting White Nationalism in Schools" toolkit, the Western States Center shares strategies to counter white nationalist organizing via sample scenarios schools frequently encounter.

See the Toolkit

Bully-Free Toolkits

This collection of NEA toolkits and resources helps educators and education support professionals to identify bullying, intervene in a bullying incident, and advocate for bullied students.

Click Here