The Writing on the Wall

It is impossible for me to go to my social pages or turn on the news and not make connections between national and international discourse about Black and brown people and the rise of racial slurs, symbols, bigotry, and harassment occurring in our schools. Across the country, racially motivated and other biased school incidents are reported regularly in the news and on social media. The preponderance and frequency of these incidents point to school and social climates that create toxic learning environments for all students and indelibly harm the students who are targeted. A close friend of mine, and mother of two elementary school students, frequently shares with me incidents that her Black daughter and son experience at their school. I recently received a text message from a Black teacher at a predominately Latino elementary school with a list of incidents experienced by her and other Black teachers and students that have gone unaddressed. Every time one of these stories is shared with me, or I read them in the news, my mind is catapulted to the faces of Little Rock Nine and Ruby Brown as they walked through angry mobs hurling slurs, epithets, and threats at them. 

Hate at School, a special report released in 2018 by the Southern Poverty Law Center found:

  • More than two-thirds of the 2,776 educators who responded to the questionnaire witnessed a hate or bias incident in their school during the fall of 2018. 
  • Fewer than 5 percent of the incidents witnessed by educators were reported in the news media. 
  • Racism appears to be the motivation behind most hate and bias incidents in school, accounting for 63 percent of incidents reported in the news and 33 percent of incidents reported by teachers. 
  • Of the incidents reported by educators, those involving racism and antisemitism were the most likely to be reported in the news media; anti-Latinx and anti-LGBTQ incidents were the least likely. 
  • Most of the hate and bias incidents witnessed by educators were not addressed by school leaders. No one was disciplined in 57 percent of them. Nine times out of 10, administrators failed to denounce the bias or reaffirm school values.

Educators, whether in classrooms, schools, districts, after-school programs, or community partners need to be prepared and accountable for intervening when these acts occur. But, as the findings above demonstrate most often they are not. Students can end up physically harming each other and themselves when the impact of derogatory language, symbols, and acts is dismissed. The narrative below, compiled and adapted from incidents reported in various news articles nationwide, is a snapshot of how unaddressed incidents reinforce a culture of tolerance and escalate into crisis. I was prompted to write it after a Facebook friend posted about their Black child being told they were an “animal.” I hope that if you see any aspect of your classroom, school, or district culture in this anecdote you will take steps to educate and prepare yourself to act in ways that prioritize those targeted, are anti-racist, and foster collective accountability for acceptance, belonging, and inclusivity in your culture and environment.

When You See the Writing on the Wall Believe It

The school year is underway, the weather is changing, and the rhythm of your school is palpable. Maybe it’s your 10th year as principal. Perhaps you are a new principal. You might be a veteran principal at a new school. The first few weeks greeted you with a few challenges, expected and unexpected. You have not been able to fill the vacancies in bilingual education, your Vice Principal has taken a leave, one teacher did not give you notice they would not be returning, and teachers’ absences are high. The schedule may have required some minor, or major, adjustments. Your cafeteria was skipped over again for the maintenance you were promised it would get for the last five summers. The materials for the district’s new reading initiative arrived six weeks into the school year. While students are settling into the new year your walkthroughs and teacher feedback make it clear that they are having trouble concentrating in class. But together with your leadership team, teachers, and support staff, you are finding ways to navigate and address these challenges. So, though you know the beginning of the school year has not been perfect (is there one?) you feel good about how you are handling it. And, because no school year is without challenges, you view them as par for the course.

During one of your walkthroughs, you pop into an empty boys’ bathroom for a routine peak. Nothing seems out of the ordinary. A few paper towels on the floor. A sink that needs a good wipe. When you look into one of the bathroom stalls you notice writing on the wall. You look a little closer and are shocked to see the words “Black lives do not matter” and other racist slurs scribbled in an area of the stall. You do a double take then step into the stall and close the door to see what else might be there. Relief sets in when you see there is nothing more. After you ask maintenance to remove the writing, you check all of the school bathrooms and are again relieved to find nothing more. At the end of the day, you meet with your leadership team to share what you found and to see if they have observed or learned of other incidents. The leadership team, in shocked confusion, begins pointing out all of the ways that the school is diverse and inclusive and how it has been responsive to student requests for programs and activities that support their specific concerns. You inform the leadership team that you will anecdotally document the incident and ask them to watch and listen for further issues. But, because your leadership team agrees that it appears to be an isolated incident and you cannot identify any responsible students, you decide not to raise the incident as a school-wide concern. 

A few weeks pass, no other incidents have been identified or reported. You feel confident your hunch that the writing on the wall was an isolated incident, maybe a proverbial “bad apple,” was correct. You’re glad you didn’t make it a community concern.


A Black parent writes a post on her Facebook page that says her 13-year-old son, one of your students, was told by another student “to go back to where he came from.” A thread of comments unwinds. Some of the comments like, “They were only kidding,” “It was a joke,” “Kids talk like that all of the time,” and “Maybe they didn’t know it was offensive,” dismissed the comments (Maydun, 2023).  But other Black parents of children in the school start sharing incidents and comments that their children experienced. One parent stated their daughter was told by a non-Black student, “No one likes n****s” (Joseph and Moshtaghian, 2021). Another Black parent adds their child and two other children were called a racial slur when a white classmate became upset during a conversation at lunch (Stein, 2019). There are reports of Black students being told they stink and others being called monkeys by their white and other non-Black peers (Chavez, 2021). Black parents indicate that “incidents were reported to administrators, and the parents of the children who used the epithet(s) were notified, but the student(s) were not immediately disciplined…The parents of the Black students were not immediately notified of the episodes” (Stein, 2019). The thread of Facebook comments becomes a living witness to the writing you discovered in the bathroom stall but decided not to address. The local news channel has picked up on the Facebook comments, spoken to parents, and requested comments from school and district leadership.

You are asking yourself, “How did this happen?”

You didn’t believe the writing on the bathroom wall and, therefore, did not take immediate, proactive, and deliberate steps to denounce and address the issue. The writing in the stall of the boys’ bathroom was a trace sign of racial bigotry in your school. Prompt strong measures are needed to weed and prevent out prejudice, racism, and bigotry in all of its forms in schools and classrooms. Delayed uncertain responses communicate tolerance, comfort, and complacency and tacitly condone these behaviors.

You are asking yourself, “What should I have done?”

Even though one, two, or a small group of students may have been responsible for the comments in the bathroom stall, many more would have seen and been impacted by them. Some may have told their parents and caregivers about them. Denouncing the comments to students and staff, parents and caregivers, and the wider community, investigating the incidents, and responding to the harm experienced by target students are the most important immediate actions to take. They demonstrate that the comments were seen and taken seriously by school leadership and set the tone for a school environment that speaks up and acts against racism and bigotry.

You are asking yourself, “Is that enough?”

The answer is no. You were not prepared to respond to bathroom comments in a manner that demonstrated using bigoted and racist language is not permitted in your school. You were unable to assess how this incident was an indicator with a root cause that needed to be identified. You must prepare your school community to work together to create an anti-racist and anti-bigoted school culture.

  • Involve others to create community agreements for the school that communicate expectations, norms, values, and beliefs about acceptance, belonging, and inclusivity, and name what these beliefs and values look like in your learning community.
  • Denounce, investigate, and respond to incidents in ways that prioritize targeted groups so they feel heard, safe, and protected and create accountability within the school community.
  • Develop a language that everyone in the community can use to respond to prejudice, racism, and bigotry when it occurs. For example, phrases like, “I find that offensive,” “That isn’t funny,” and “Why would you say something like that?” speak up challenge derogatory language, and can create dialogue (Learning for Justice, 2022).
  • Support teachers to develop classroom communities and learning that build an understanding of the impact of racism and bigotry and empower students to speak up against it for themselves.
  • Identify the resources you have in place to respond to racist and bigoted comments, acts, or incidents, and seek external expertise and facilitation when you need it.

There is never a time to be silent about racism or bigotry of any kind in our classrooms and schools. When you see, hear, observe, or receive reports about racist and other bigoted comments, acts, or incidents believe they are real. Denounce and address racist and bigoted behavior in your learning community before it becomes a crisis.

Don’t ignore the writing on the wall.



Chavez, N. (2021, December 5). “Students are fed up with racist slurs and bullying. Now they are walking out of class.” CNN.

Joseph, E. and Moshtaghian, A. (2021, November 15). “Minnesota police investigating video of racist rant encouraging a Black student to her own life.” CNN.

Maydun, H. (2023, April 19). “Teacher at school where Black student was called ‘monkey’ said she didn’t know it was an insult.” KRON News.

Mercado, R. (2022, November 22). “Oakland community responds in wake of the racist message, threat found in school bathroom.” The Mercury News.

Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). (2018). Hate at School.

Stein, P. (2019, March 12). “A white child called three black classmates a racial slur. Months later, the school is struggling to move forward.” Washington Post.

Teaching for Tolerance. (2022) Speak Up at School: How to respond to Every Day Prejudice, Bigotry, and Stereotypes. Southern Poverty Law Center.



Responding to Hate and Bias at School

A guide for administrators, counselors, and teachers.

Mix It Up

Ideas for teens about breaking down social barriers and addressing bias and bigotry at school

Responding to Everyday Bigotry: Speak Up

Anecdotal stories that are organized by the following categories: among family; among friends and neighbors; at work; at school; and in public.