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July 1, 2015 | 0 comments

After Charleston: Lessons for Educators and Students

When we help one another, accept one another and learn from one another, our actions create a force that is stronger than violence and hatred. This summer, the eyes of the nation have focused on Charleston, S.C., where the community has galvanized and is standing together after 21-year-old Dylann Roof gunned down nine African-Americans during Bible study on June 17. It is in times like this that we turn to leaders in our communities to work toward healing and solutions.

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By Becki Cohn

When we help one another, accept one another and learn from one another, our actions create a force that is stronger than violence and hatred.

This summer, the eyes of the nation have focused on Charleston, S.C., where the community has galvanized and is standing together after 21-year-old Dylann Roof gunned down nine African-Americans during Bible study on June 17. It is in times like this that we turn to leaders in our communities to work toward healing and solutions. What can we do to come together after hateful attacks like the one in Charleston, and how can we prevent hate from invading our communities?

Here are four key lessons Not In Our Town (NIOT) has learned from remarkable everyday heroes who have faced down hate, and spoken up for their neighbors. Educators, who play an important leadership role, can use these lessons in their schools:

1. Acknowledge the hate in your school and community, and be aware of how it operates.

In the New York Times op-ed, "The Data of Hate," Harvard economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz analyzed thousands of user profiles on Stormfront, the most popular white supremacist website in the United States where the majority of hate messages target Jewish and black people. His findings demonstrate that more people become active on Stormfront at the age of 19 than any other age, suggesting that youth are particularly vulnerable to hateful ideologies. Often when students express hateful or intolerant messages, the response is “they are just being kids,” which sends a message that the community accepts this behavior. However, unaddressed hateful acts can build into greater tragedies. Violent, hateful attacks like the recent killings of black church members in Charleston, along with the anti-Semitic killings at a Jewish institution outside Kansas City in 2014, the deadly attack at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin in 2012, and the 200,000-plus hate crimes that occur each year are dramatic reminders that bigotry is a real and dangerous threat.

Some indicators of hate are widely accepted symbols that continue to carry connotations of prejudice as evidenced with the Confederate flag, a prevailing symbol of slavery. Not only do white supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan continue to embrace the flag, but the killer in Charleston proudly wore this symbol of hate in a photo on his Facebook page. It is time to remove all symbols that promote hate and divisions among people. In our classrooms, we can incorporate important lessons from our history and relate them to current events.

2. Help students find their voice and teach them to be “upstanders” who speak out and stand up for themselves and others.

Students can take the lead in solving problems—and learn to be upstanders who are confident enough to speak out when bigotry surfaces. They can practice responding when insensitive remarks and slurs are made, and they can intervene to stop bullying and hurtful teasing.

Shooters regularly brag about their violent plans ahead of time, as was the case in Charleston. When students hear that someone plans to commit an act of hate or bring a gun to school, they should report it to authorities and help prevent such an incident from occurring. Students in one Not In Our School Club in Iowa, heard that a peer was bringing a gun to school. They informed the principal and a tragedy was averted.

Students at any grade level can practice and teach one another the four ways to be an upstander: intervene safely; get help from a trusted adult; befriend the targeted student; and become an activist for positive change.

3. Recognize and honor differences, while promoting compassion and empathy.

Some teachers say they are “colorblind” to differences. Sadly, however, we do not live in a post-racial society. People are not blind to differences, and racial divisions haven’t disappeared. Actually, trying to ignore race or cultural differences only dismisses their lived experiences. This is why it is important to recognize and honor differences, instead of trying to be colorblind.

For example, immigrant students from Newcomers High School in Long Island City, N.Y., and middle schoolers from Manhattan came together to share their stories, connect, and better understand immigration on a personal level. Learning to view the world through other people’s eyes is an antidote to the sense of separation that fuels intolerance. Grimmer Elementary in Fremont, Calif., created a kindness campaign to help children practice compassion and to promote identity safety.

4. Be open to having difficult conversations.

When discussing racism and other forms of bigotry, strong emotions emerge. Candid conversations about these issues bring tensions to light and help students find common ground. The NIOT video What Do You Say to “That's So Gay”? depicts a teacher navigating a difficult discussion in class in which students freely contribute. To open community dialogue about bias and prejudice, NIOT offers films and discussion guides. Additionally, the Public Conversations Project features a guidebook for facilitating constructive conversations on divisive topics.

Although it’s distressing to learn about young people like Dylann Roof, teachers nationwide support thousands of youths who are creating inclusive schools—like the young Not in Our School leaders who shared their strategies for standing up to hate. We don’t have to wait for a horrific incident to reach out to students. When we help one another, accept one another and learn from one another, our actions create a force that is stronger than violence and hatred. Together, we can move toward a world of safety, acceptance and respect for everyone. Learn more at NIOT.org.

Resources: Using NIOT Films to Open Dialogue in the Classroom

NIOT films can be used to open dialogue about issues of race, hate crimes, and communities coming together to stand up to all forms of hate and bigotry. Select from these themes, featuring short and longer NIOT films.

Symbols of Hate

In the heart of the South, students at the University of Mississippi question whether traditions tied to the Confederacy and segregation continue to belong on their campus. When a chant and football fight song surfaced old racial tensions and divided the Ole Miss community, student leaders, supported by their chancellor, brought people together. Hundreds came out to turn their backs on hate when the KKK came to demonstrate in favor of the chant. Read the full story.

View: Ole Miss: Facing the Change (10- minute segment from the NIOT PBS Film “Class Actions”)

Read: Lesson Guide for Ole Miss: Facing the Change

Attacks On Houses of Worship

The week after the hate crime at AME Church in Charleston, six churches were burned, and investigations are taking place, with at least three identified as cases of arson. This is not the first time churches have been attacked in South Carolina.

View: Citizens in South Carolina Rebuild After Church Burnings (4:58-minute excerpt from Not In Our Town II)

St. John Baptist Church in South Carolina, originally founded by slaves, was nearly destroyed by racially motivated vandalism in 1985. Ten years later, it burned to the ground. Members of this small congregation gather at the charred ruins and vow to rebuild and prevent further acts of hate.

View and discuss several NIOT films that show communities coming together after hate crimes at different places of worship.

Upstanders: Communities Coming Together to Take a Stand Against Hate

View: Not In Our Town: Light In the Darkness film on PBS Learning (28:46 minutes)

Read: Not In Our Town: Light in the Darkness Educator Viewing Guide

“Light in the Darkness” follows a community in crisis after the fatal attack on a local immigrant resident by high school students. Stunned by the violence, diverse community stakeholders take actions to prevent future hate crimes and intolerance. In addition to the importance of learning about how the community came together to respond to hate, the filmt brings up serious questions for educators:

  • How did these young people routinely participate in what they called "beaner-hopping" ("beaner" is a racial slur and "beaner-hopping" refers to beating up Latino immigrants) without their teachers and parents noticing?
  • Why did other students who knew what was going on never speak up?
  • What was the impact of the media's hateful rhetoric on the attitudes of youth in the schools?

Educators across the U.S. have begun to use the film as a springboard for addressing issues of immigration, bullying, and for teaching students to be upstanders (those who speak up and take action).

Editor's Note: Portions of this blog were adapted from a previous Not In Our Town blog “Heading Off the Storm of Hate Together” By Patrice O’Neill, NIOT CEO and executive producer and Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School director.


Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas is the Director of Not In Our School (NIOS). She has spoken on the subject of how to combat bullying at conferences,schools, and universities across the United States. Becki's newbook,“Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn,” co-authored with Dr. Dorothy Steele was published by Corwin Press. Prior to working at The Working Group, she spent over 35 years in public education in California. She was a preschool director in Healdsburg, teacher and principal in the Oakland Unified School District, Elementary Curriculum Director for the Palo Alto Unified School District and Superintendent of the Luther Burbank School District. While serving in Palo Alto in 2003, Becki initiated Not In Our School: Palo Alto, one of the first NIOS initiatives featured on KQED public television.

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