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September 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 1

Confronting Racial and Religious Tensions

When community demographics change, tensions often erupt. Bringing students—even the most volatile—into dialogue is key to restoring safety.

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In my work addressing bias, harassment, and violence in schools, there are few truisms. One of the few is this: When communities change demographically based on race, ethnicity, and religion—particularly when change occurs quickly—tension almost always surfaces.
The place where that tension is most likely to erupt into open discord and even violence is school. The school is often the only place where people from different racial, ethnic, national, and religious backgrounds spend considerable time together. What separates one school from another is not whether that tension occurs, but how the school community addresses it.
Several years ago, an assistant high school principal called me to ask for help. Her school, in a New England city of 25,000 people, had seen significant demographic change. Two years earlier, a large group of refugees from Somalia had moved into this community, in which the majority was white and American born. The refugees' children, who were African, black, and Muslim, began attending the school.
This assistant principal called me because fights had started happening between white and Somali students. These were very different from the usual high school fights, Mrs. Grant, told me: "Normally when I arrive, students end their scuffles. But not these fights. I literally had to wade into fights and pry students apart." These conflicts had not sprung out of thin air but had their genesis in an escalating spiral of tension, misunderstanding, and anger that began the preceding summer. The fights increased in number and severity throughout the fall, culminating in a violent brawl that precipitated Mrs. Grant's call in February.
One student was seriously beaten; paramedics took him on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance. Hundreds of students witnessed the fight. The floor and one wall were covered in blood. The school was traumatized, and students were scared and angry. The principal had one question for me: "Can you stop this?" My response was, "I hope so."
In wading into this highly charged situation in which a respectful school climate was eroding, I drew on strategies that the Center for Prevention of Hate Violence uses when tensions between students have come to a full boil. The center collaborates with schools to facilitate conflict resolution discussion groups that we call controversial dialogues. These student-focused sessions can be initiated by any school, as the stories I share here show.

Dialogue Changes the Picture

I told Mrs. Grant to select 24 students who would meet with me for four weekly sessions of one-and-a-half to two hours each. The group would consist of three types of students, in equal parts: white students who were the most upset about the demographic changes in their school and were expressing racial bias; Somali and other students of color who were angriest about such stereotyping; and students of any race, nationality, or religion who simply wanted everyone to get along. "It sounds like you want the kids who might be in fights," she said warily. I replied, "Yes."
To shift the climate from one of high tension with the constant risk of violence, it's crucial to involve those students who are most upset and angry. At our first dialogue session, the tension and anxiety were extreme, and the discussions were heated. Students were angry and accusatory. Three white boys wanted to leave the session; I convinced two of them to stay. But despite the emotion, students began to talk to one another about race, religion, and their mutual feeling that school was now a scary place.
Toward the session's end, I had students move into small groups to talk about the effect of degrading language and stereotypes. A Somali girl and a white boy pulled out of their respective groups and talked intensely together.
I wrapped up this session by asking students to talk about what was difficult or helpful about the dialogue they'd just had. The boy who'd conversed privately with the Somali girl stood up. This boy had come into the dialogue with strong negative stereotypes about Somalis and blacks. He was a leader in the school, but not always for the better, and if there were another fight, he might be in the center of it. He said,We talked about the "n word." I never understood why it was so hurtful until she explained the history behind the word. School is not fun anymore. It's too tense. We need to stop using that word. We need to change.
The room became quiet. Students stared at him with wide eyes. Of all the students in the room, this boy was the least likely to have said this.
The next session occurred two days before the February vacation. Everyone knew that the school's disciplinary committee would be deciding on possible expulsions because of the fight, and everyone knew that these decisions would increase tensions in the school.
We talked more about stereotypes; students told their stories and listened to different perspectives. A girl named Yasmin talked about escaping from the war in Somalia. She talked about hiding in a truck that was leaving the country, about how out of a slit in the canvas siding she saw soldiers shooting, killing, and burning unarmed people. Soldiers stopped the truck and pointed automatic rifles at Yasmin and her mother, who was sitting behind her.
A student asked, "Were you scared that you would be killed?" "No," she answered. "I didn't think they'd shoot me because I was so young. But I was terrified they would shoot my mother."
Toward the end of the session, I raised my concern that tensions and violence might erupt when students came back to school after the administration announced its disciplinary decisions. The students shared my concern. I asked what they could do to reduce the risk of violence; they responded, "Nothing." Then I asked how many peers each of them could talk to over the weeklong vacation and whether they would consider speaking to friends, passing on stories they'd heard in our sessions—like Yasmin's—and sending the message that people should cool it when they returned to school.
Our group met again two days after the vacation. I asked students whether there had been fights in school and whether tensions were higher. They said no—in fact, school seemed less scary, but they didn't know why. I then inquired how many friends each of them had talked to about what they'd learned in our dialogues and their wish to keep school peaceful. Each had talked to at least five friends. Slowly they realized their actions had changed the climate.
As our group met for several more weeks, expressions of racial bias continued, but at a far lower level. Students' tensions and fears lessened markedly. Racial fights in the school ended.

The Perils of Silence

Since this first controversial dialogue, center consultants have conducted similar successful sessions in schools experiencing high levels of tension focused on racial differences, religious differences, sexual orientation, and fights among girls. Too often, when I'm asked to assist schools facing a crisis, I find that adults have not spoken directly to students about the issues. Not every serious incident of bias or violence at a school needs to result in formal dialogues. But adults should never meet incidents like the brawl at Mrs. Grant's school with silence.
Two years ago, I received a call from the principal of a school in Northern Ireland that I hadn't previously worked in. I was flying to Northern Ireland the next week to work in other schools. The principal, Mr. Ritchie, told me that his community had experienced a fatal sectarian beating of a Catholic man by several Protestant men. He worried that students would engage in fights or even riot over the summer, and he wanted me to speak to the entire student body to tell them that fighting and riots were a bad idea.
I told Mr. Ritchie I would not conduct the assembly but would facilitate a several-hours-long dialogue. He was reluctant. We agreed that I would visit his school the next week so that we could discuss the next steps.
We met early in the morning with other administrators. Mr. Ritchie told me that the dialogue was unnecessary because his students did not have sectarian bias. I said that in every other school in Northern Ireland where I had worked, bias concerning religion was a significant issue. A few minutes later, he told me that two of the men charged with the murder were fathers of students in his school, but he quickly added that religious tension was not an issue. It then came out that several Catholic students at the school had witnessed the murder. After much discussion, school leaders agreed to let me initiate a student dialogue.
The dialogue was initially tense, but students—Protestant and Catholic—soon shared that serious sectarian bias was going in both directions. Students on both sides were scared. They talked about what they could do to reduce tensions in the school and keep themselves safe over the summer. These young people also told me that adults had initiated no discussions with them in school about the murder itself or the anger and fear the crime engendered.
The next morning, Mr. Ritchie spoke on a local radio show about the importance of getting students to talk honestly with one another about religious differences. He had worried that the dialogue would create tension within the school. Instead, students left the dialogue with far less tension.
Talking about racial, religious, and other forms of bias can seem a daunting, scary task. Some educators worry that such conversations will make the situation worse because students will become angrier. But when adults fail to validate students' fears and anxieties, those fears and anxieties don't disappear. They continue to harm students' ability to focus on academics, and they allow harassment to continue unabated. Silence also leaves students with the mistaken belief that their teachers and administrators don't care about serious issues affecting their lives.

How to Get Students Talking

After a serious incident or when tensions resulting from demographic change first begin to appear, teachers can provide space for students to express their feelings. For teachers who don't feel equipped for or don't have time for a long conversation, there are other options. You might ask students to state aloud in one or two words how they're feeling about the incident. Just learning that others share their confusion, fear, anger, or sadness is validating to people. Alternatively, ask students to write briefly about their thoughts and emotions and, with students' agreement, read some of these reflections to the group anonymously.
One approach that allows students to focus on how school climate can improve is to ask about their hopes for a school in which students of different races, ethnicities, and religions all feel respected and safe. One prompt I've used is "Write about what you hope for the school in terms of reducing bias and what you fear will happen if bias continues."
  • Writing a letter to the school community.
  • Convening assemblies at which both administrators and students speak (preferably for each grade rather than schoolwide).
  • Scheduling brief visits to each classroom by a member of the leadership team and a respected student to talk about religious, racial, or other tensions and the need for tolerant listening and civility.
  • Organizing—in homerooms or similar groupings—discussions about racial or other tensions. Students and faculty can jointly facilitate these discussions. Provide facilitators with a set of questions for students to discuss and brief training on how to lead a discussion on difficult issues. Questions might include, (1) Which groups are experiencing tension over bias and harassment? (2) How is that tension affecting students and the school climate? and (3) What can students do to reduce tensions and make the school safe and respectful? Have students in each group identify concrete suggestions for steps students can take to improve school climate. These suggestions can be reported out in an assembly or posted around the school.

Empower Students to Meet a Crisis

When schools spend time and energy cultivating student leadership on issues of respect and civility, students become a remarkable resource. I saw this when I addressed tensions between students attending a Protestant school and students attending an integrated school (one that intentionally enrolls both Catholic and Protestant students) in Northern Ireland. Conflicts were flaring up at a transfer point where students from both schools changed buses. Things had escalated from hostile stares to degrading language to threats, and police were concerned that students might be carrying knives and that someone would be wounded or worse.
I led a full-day dialogue involving 12 students from each school. The day was intense and at times difficult. The long history of sectarian violence was personal for these students; several had had a family member killed because of their religion. Everyone knew someone who had been beaten up because of religious differences. But as students listened to one another, they realized they shared two things: a fear of violence at the transfer point and a deep hope that Northern Ireland could move beyond the sectarian violence that had dominated the lives of their parents' generation.
Toward the end of the day, one student asked what they should do the next day when they met at the transfer point. I suggested that they simply say hello to one another by name. The dialogue ended, and I went back to the United States.
I didn't hear any report from these schools until I returned to Northern Ireland three months later and conducted a workshop that included students from the integrated school. They told me that the day after our dialogue, when they arrived at the transfer point, Catholic and Protestant students who'd been in the dialogue began talking to one another using first names. From that point on, tension at the site subsided. I later learned from a police officer in the community that these students, with no guidance from adults, had continued their peace-building efforts in a neighborhood near the transfer point where serious conflict had been brewing.
I didn't give these students a detailed plan for reducing violence. But once they developed the ability to communicate across religious lines, they lessened the potential for violence by reaching out to one another.

Trust and Results

Powerful student dialogues about bias and conflict can only happen if educators trust students' innate empathy and compassion. And students can participate in—and even lead—a school's response only if we have faith in their potential for leadership.
If we pretend that bias, fear, and anger don't exist, we send those attitudes and emotions underground. They then either erupt in a public and even violent way or fester as students suffer in silence from the degradation of bias. Some of these students will experience depression, declining grades, or fear. Some will turn to self-harm or drop out of school. Some will lose hope that their world has the capacity for respect, fairness, and empathy.
In schools in which adults talk openly about issues of bias and in which student voice and leadership is nurtured, different results occur—often wonderful and dramatic results. Educators not only reinforce the values of respect on which our school communities are built, but also help youth develop the skills, confidence, and courage to be the leaders we need.

Stephen L. Wessler is the Director of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence at the University of Southern Maine, where he is also a research associate professor with the College of Arts and Sciences and the Muskie School of Public Service. The center develops and implements programs in schools, colleges, and communities to prevent bias, prejudice, harassment, and violence, and promotes writing and teaching on issues relating to bias-motivated violence.

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