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Portland-Area High Schools Respond To Hate Speech

After several recent incidents at local high schools, Oregon’s largest school district has announced that it will begin collecting data on hate speech on school grounds. The Southern Poverty Law Center says there’s been an increase in hate speech incidents across the country since the presidential election, and Portland Public School Assistant Superintendent Antonio Lopez says it’s important to document what’s happening here.

In recent weeks, racist graffiti was found in the bathrooms at Lake Oswego High School, and homophobic and transphobic graffiti was found on a gender-neutral bathroom at Grant High School. 

Carol Campbell, the principal of Grant High School, told OPB’s “Think Out Loud” that high school is a kind of microcosm of the world at large. “We have seen an increase just globally of this kind of language,” she says. “But in a high school, we take the approach that these are opportunities to educate. These are teenagers trying to figure out their own worldview and to develop their own beliefs.”

Campbell says she was encouraged by the response she got from the student body when she addressed the issue in a recent student assembly. An investigation is ongoing and supervision outside the vandalized bathroom has been increased, she says.

But Campbell says the most important thing is giving students the space and context to process and respond to these kinds of things. “What we’ve been working on is creating a culture and climate where students also take ownership and responsibility for the kind of inclusive environment that we’re looking for.”

Lake Oswego High School principal Rollin Dickinson says he was saddened by the events at his school, but he was also heartened by response to the hateful graffiti in some campus bathrooms — he first learned of the graffiti from students themselves. “Students came in with the message, ‘I was able to clean this one off but I wasn’t able to clean this one off. Can you help?’”

Dickinson says he agrees with Campbell that these incidents to some extent reflect the world we live in and “a reality that our students have to confront.” But he says there’s a thick silver lining for him: He can already see students maturing in their response to this kind of incident.  

“Earlier in the year we had a couple incidents … and the issue we dealt with is that our students didn’t really respond. There was more of a culture of a silent bystander. This time, I felt like we had an overwhelming response from students.”

Campbell says she’s optimistic about students’ ability to move forward. “We have instituted a ‘race forward’ activity that occurs at our school, in response to some racism events that occurred but we plan to include these homophobic and anti-Semetic graffiti that we’re seeing as well in those conversations.”

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