Two months after a Black student at Lyons Township High School was bombarded by racist tropes after making a social media post about Black History Month, the high school hosted a Zoom workshop about talking to students about eliminating hate speech.
The workshop was led by Tyrone Howard, a professor of education at UCLA who has been helping LTHS with its efforts to promote equity. The 90-minute long workshop also included comments from LTHS Director of Equity and Belonging Jennifer Rowe, Principal Jennifer Tyrrell and Superintendent Brian Waterman. Approximately 75 people, mostly adults, attended the April 5 virtual presentation.
“In many ways I feel like I am preaching to the choir here,” Howard said at the beginning of his presentation, noting that the number of hate crimes has been rising in recent years in the United States.
“We need to be better, we can be better, and we have to be better,” Howard said.
Howard also noted that that bullying in schools has increased over the last 15 years.
“It’s happening at earlier and earlier ages,” Howard said.
Howard said that Black, Latino and LGBTQ+ students are often the victims of bullying and hate speech.
“We are in a moment that, I think, is deeply troubling,” Howard said.
Howard said parents should talk to their children about what they see on social media and must speak up when they hear hate speech.
“Our silence makes us complicit,” Howard said.
Howard said parents and adults should look for teachable moments and make their messages to their children age-appropriate. Parents should recognize that sometimes their children will make prejudiced comments.
“That does not mean you are a bad parent,” Howard said.
But Howard said parents need to speak up when they hear hate speech and be upstanders, not bystanders.
“We have to talk to people about being careful with their words,” Howard said.
Howard said parents should aim to be role models and try to develop a diverse group of friends.
“This is all learned behavior,” Howard said of hate speech. “It can be unlearned.”
Howard noted that there can sometimes be a fine line between hate speech and free speech.
“You can have different political ideologies, that’s fine,” Howard said. “It’s not our role to tell people what to think.”
Hate speech, not people, should be the focus.
“White and cisgender students are not the target,” Howard said.
Howard also said that those working to promote equity should expect pushback.
“There is going to resistance, there is going to be opposition,” Howard said.
At the end of the workshop both Tyrrell and Waterman thanked Howard for the presentation and restated their commitment to promote equity at LTHS.
“We see the best parts of our society and the worst parts of our society play out in our hallways and we have a moral obligation to address that,” Waterman said.
Tyrrell ended the workshop by committing to apply the lessons learned during the workshop.
“I’m fired up to continue our journey and to amplify what we’ve learned here,” Tyrrell said.
This week some LTHS students will participate in the World of Difference training developed by the Anti-Defamation League that is intended to promote diversity and tolerance.
The workshop followed on the heels of a February report by ABC 7 Chicago about LTHS sophomore Heavyn Washington, who posted a picture on SnapChat on Feb. 4 about the Civil Rights Movement and wrote “Happy Black History Month and don’t forget to keep advocating for Black lives.”
In response she received many racist responses, including tropes referencing to bananas, cotton and guns. Many of the racist responses were apparently from fellow students.
At the Feb. 14 committee of the whole meeting of the LTHS District 204 Board of Education, Washington made a statement complaining of racism at LTHS.
“Racism is the real epidemic and it’s taken such a big toll on not just me, but a lot of students who do attend LT, and it’s definitely been hurting the school learning environment,” Washington said. “It’s not just a one-time thing and it sucks that we have to have a racist outbreak to actually speak about these situations.”
According to the ABC 7 Chicago story another Black student at the high school, Olivia Williams, told her mother she was called the N-word in the hallways at South Campus the Monday after the Washington’s SnapChat post.
“I feel like I’m not welcome, and that if I go to school I’m in some type of danger simply because of how mean and aggressive they are when they say these things,” Williams told ABC 7 Chicago reporter Liz Nagy.
LTHS officials condemned the racist comments in statements by Superintendent Brian Waterman and school board President Kari Dillon.
“These actions do not reflect LT’s values,” Dillon said. “There are no words that will take away or undo the harm that is caused when we treat each other with anything less than the respect that each person deserves. And yet, here we are again. We are deeply saddened by the damage this does to our community, especially to our non-white students and families.”
LTHS also held a healing circle for students at South Campus after the SnapChat post in an effort to promote healing and understanding. About 115 students participated during lunch periods said Rowe.