The disturbing images generated headlines across the country.
In one photo, Orange County teenagers were seen mimicking a Nazi salute next to red cups arranged to form a swastika. A separate video, surfacing months later, showed students from another district singing a Nazi marching song at an off-campus athletic event.
Meanwhile, allegations of racist taunts marred two local high school football games this season.
It may be tempting to dismiss these incidents as shocking but rare anomalies driven by ignorance or immaturity. But hate crimes and hate incidents have been steadily rising over the years in Orange County, according to the OC Human Relations Commission. And there’s reason to believe the rates are significantly underreported.
“It can happen anywhere,” says Stacy Deeble-Reynolds, director of Student Achievement and Wellness for the Orange County Department of Education.
OCDE and its community partners are stepping up efforts to ensure that it doesn’t.
This month, the department has teamed up with the Orange County Human Relations Commission to host a pair of forums to explore the causes of hate on school campuses and share potential solutions. In addition, OCDE offers bullying prevention trainings, deploys a crisis response team to schools, works with districts to analyze survey data about student well-being, and oversees on-campus programs that empower students to improve school climates.
Along with promoting its One Billion Acts of Kindness campaign, OCDE is also leading the statewide implementation of a framework designed to support the academic, behavioral and social-emotional needs of all students.
We recently sat down with Deeble-Reynolds to talk about promoting inclusivity, building relationships and taking proactive measures to combat hate in Orange County.
What trends are we seeing in terms of hate crimes or acts of intolerance in schools?
Well, certainly we’re hearing more about these kinds of incidents in the news and on social media, where they tend to have a life of their own. We are also hearing firsthand from school districts experiencing increased rates of these kinds of incidents, specifically harassment and bullying. And in surveys, many students report feeling a lack of connectedness or social isolation.
How important is survey data?
The California Healthy Kids Survey absolutely guides our work, with indicators related to school safety, mental and physical health, resiliency and school climate. Not only do we look at county data, we help districts look at their own data in order to improve student academic performance and the social-emotional, behavioral and physical health of all youth.
So for example, when we look at harassment and bullying among 11th-grade students in Orange County, we see that our black or African-American students are harassed disproportionately at a 30 percent rate, compared to 10 percent of white students. We also know that for our students who identify as LGBT, 23 percent say they have been afraid of being beaten up on school property in the past 12 months, whereas the rate is 9 percent for students who do not identify as LGBT. We relentlessly analyze data and disaggregate it with district staff and administration to identify and address students’ needs.
What can a school or district do to proactively encourage tolerance and inclusivity?
There are a number of things educational leaders can do, starting with training staff on issues of bias and also working to diversify staff. That’s a really good proactive step. Again, analyzing data to identify and address needs is critical. Making sure they’re developing relationships with community partners and institutions because there are so many people out there who have an interest in supporting the school in this kind of work, including faith-based groups.
It’s also important to build relationships with families while providing broad academic and social-emotional supports. So, for example, having opportunities for all kids to be involved in clubs and extracurricular activities, things that maybe they haven’t considered yet that would be of interest to all students. Offering opportunities and creating that welcoming environment — that’s a big part of it.
And OCDE can assist in these areas?
Absolutely. There’s a variety of things that we’ve done and that we’re continuing to build upon.
As a county office of education, we have an equity work group that consists of people from across our Educational Services division working with districts to build safe and inclusive school environments. Through the MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Support) framework, we are making sure there are universal strategies in place. We also offer programs that focus on bullying prevention, alcohol, tobacco and other drug prevention, physical and mental health, youth development, stress management, restorative practices and social-emotional learning.
We help districts analyze their data, including results from the California Healthy Kids Survey, and the racial disparities that exist related to students’ experience of harassment, violence, bullying and school connectedness. So we’ve disaggregated that data, and we help districts analyze results and make changes to create more inclusive and supportive school environments for all students.
We also help districts through peer-to-peer models like Peer Assistance Leadership (PAL), Friday Night Live (FNL) and Bullying Prevention Programs, which engage and empower students to create environments and experiences on their campuses that are positive and welcoming. In addition, we offer trainings to families on the topics of digital citizenship, cyberbullying, stress management, substance abuse prevention, mental health and family engagement.
You mentioned MTSS. Tell us more about that and where it fits in.
In 2016, OCDE was selected by the California Department of Education to lead the statewide implementation of what’s known as the Multi-Tiered System of Support framework, which aligns new and existing strategies to meet students’ academic, behavioral and social-emotional needs.
MTSS relies on data and high levels of collaboration to provide core supports for all students, additional assistance for some, and targeted interventions for those with the greatest needs. It helps establish deep connections where every student’s name, face and story are known to staff, so it really is a way to promote positive school climates and cultures — and to be aware of any issues or areas of discontent that may be percolating.
We understand there are a few events planned to address intolerance in schools. Can you tell us about those?
We’re partnering with the Orange County Human Relations Commission to host two forums in January to explore the impact that hate has on victims, students and the school community. On Jan. 7, we hosted an evening event for students and parents, and on the morning of Jan. 22, we will host another forum to bring school site and district leaders together. Our office also intends to host an all-day symposium in the spring to dive deeper into these issues.
What is typically the role of county offices in promoting tolerance and positive school cultures?
Based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, all schools must comply with federal and state anti-discrimination laws, which state that no student should be subject to discrimination, harassment or bullying. So we understand the importance of giving our school districts resources to help them in these areas.
As county offices of education, we are all creating equity work groups and coming up with a shared definition of equity, along with equity plans. This is a statewide initiative, and we’re working within our respective counties and across counties.
We at OCDE have adopted a vision that Orange County students will lead the nation in college and career readiness and success. But we also know it’s difficult for young people to focus on academics if they are experiencing anxiety or not feeling safe or welcomed. Ultimately we want to create safe, secure and inclusive environments where all students feel welcome and all learners can thrive.
For more information, contact Stacy Deeble-Reynolds at email@example.com or visit OCDE’s Student Achievement and Wellness webpage.