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An aerial view of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District campus in Great Barrington

On hate speech: Building structures for engaging in dialogue

By Monday, Dec 2, 2019 News 5

Hate speech has no place in our schools. It has no place in our communities. And it not only hurts its victims. Hate speech hurts all of us. We must do better.

Schools reflect the communities within which they exist. At our best, our schools and communities are welcoming, celebrate diversity, engage all voices and listen carefully. At our worst, we are something less.

As a small district and many small communities, we have opportunities and obligations to change both our approaches and our reactions.

For the last three weeks we’ve been confronted by the impact of anti-Semitic hate speech. Kids and parents are terrified. Everyone is worried about safety. Over the last 10 years, we have wrestled with inappropriate actions and language often around “isms” including anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, sexual harassment, homophobia, as well as bullying, to name a few. In each case, we have both responded reactively, with varying degrees of success, and also proactively, with the hope of setting up systems to lessen the impact of our missteps for the future. We have brought in numerous groups and created partnerships with many groups including the Anti-Defamation League, the Department of Justice, the FBI, Multicultural BRIDGE, the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office, local and state police, Austen Riggs Center, the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Railroad Street Youth Project, Berkshire South Regional Community CenterBerkshire County NAACP, and many other organizations.

As we move to a more coherent approach district-wide, we’d like to build on the strengths of our existing programs in our schools, which include Responsive Classroom and Social Thinking curricula, advisory, restorative practices, Anti-Defamation League, and student-led initiatives.

We propose creating a frame for student, staff and community support that we would use on an ongoing basis to process expected and unexpected challenging moments. If we want students, staff and parents to be thoughtful and empathetic people who are not just aware of others’ differences but also want to embrace them and learn from them, then we need to refine and build culture K-12. This will be our shared work over the next three or maybe 30 years.

Common to all these approaches are:

  • A commitment to positive intentions.
  • A process for deep listening and learning from our community, particularly around how bias is impacting people.
  • Authentic opportunities for students to share their voices.
  • An investment of time and other resources to support the work.
  • Regular training for staff, students, parents and community members.
  • A willingness to partner with supporting organizations when the work is integrated and thoughtful.
  • An ongoing feedback loop to evaluate our progress in tough and good times, which may include surveys, focus groups and ad hoc subcommittees.
  • Celebrations of successes.
  • Additionally, we’d like to add this work as a regular agenda item for school committee meetings and for meetings of other boards and organizations.

Most recently, we have started a series of conversations with more than 25 community and faith leaders. It was clear from these conversations that the impact of hate speech on kids, families and our community was both raw and sobering. The call to be courageous was inspiring. While we haven’t yet charted all the details of our path, we have committed to developing an explicit action plan with public goals and clear outcomes.

What happens in schools is tied to what happens outside of them. How can we better engage everyone to support a broad cultural shift? How will we stand together and speak out for each other and ourselves? How will we hold each other accountable to do better for our kids?

It’s long past time for us to stand together against hate speech. It’s long past time for us to collectively push for disruptive change.

We welcome feedback on this emerging frame and look forward to working together to create the type of community where everyone is valued, celebrated and safe.


The writer is superintendent of both the Berkshire Hills Regional School District and the Shaker Mountain Regional School Union.

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