State, schools track bullying of minorities in Trump era

By CHAO YAN
Capital News Service

LANSING — The Department of Civil Rights is working with local school districts to deal with racial and ethnic bias incidents arising after the November election.

In November, Civil Rights and the state Department of Education released a statement encouraging schools to review and revise their harassment policies and increase dialogue about diversity.

The election of Donald Trump as president was followed by high-profile incidents of intimidation that matched his political statements. Such rhetoric allows for more harassment to happen, said Roberto Torres, the executive director of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan.

Some people see Trump’s statements on immigrants as permission for them to unleash long-held biases.

“It’s almost OK to do that,” Torres said. “It’s OK to tease somebody because they are documented or undocumented, it’s OK to tease somebody because they are immigrants.”

Agustin  Arbulu, the e director of the Department of Civil Rights, said marginalized groups  are anxious about racism surging into learning environments.  

“We have seen increases in bullying or harassment by groups of students K-12 highlighting other students,” Arbulu said.   

Two schools in Michigan, DeWitt Junior High School and Royal Oak Middle School, experienced racial incidents in late 2016 after Trump’s election. Both of them had a white enrollment that was more than 80 percent in the 2015-16 school year, according to the Michigan Student Data System.  

Communities where the students are overwhelmingly white are the department’s biggest concern, Arbulu said.

“They have less experience dealing with people of color. If you are a Latino and you are in a community that is 95 percent white, you’ve been staying under the radar,” Arbulu said.

But recent political circumstances have made those kids more visible, Arbulu said.

The department is investigating civil rights complaints in several schools, which are not public until the investigation is complete, said communications director Vicki Levengood.

Some diverse districts have been working hard to maintain harmony in their schools.

Most districts in the Kent County Intermediate School District (ISD) have high levels of diversity in student population, except schools in suburban districts where the student population is 96 percent white.

“But pretty much all of our districts have their own plan,” Julie Mushing, the diversity coordinator for the Kent County ISD, said.

Mushing said many diversity projects are doing a great job. Forest Hills Public Schools has a global leadership program that is accessible to parents, students and staff. The Rockford Public Schools district has diversity groups that meet monthly and share their progress on minority issues with members.

Some districts have taken action on school policy. For example, Grand Rapids Public Schools updated its handbook last March to protect students from discrimination, bullying and cyber-bullying, according to John Helmholdt, the executive director of communications and external affairs for the district.

To better track school incidents, Helmholdt said the district implemented the Restorative Justice Progra, “in which we will bring internal or external mediators to work with students, staff and parents.”

He added, “When you confront harassment, discrimination, we need to lay on these supports.”

Torres said conversation among ethnic groups is essential to prevent bias incidents.

“People are trying to put themselves in the shoes of others,” Torres said. “When you are in an educational environment where social interaction is limited, you have to introduce diversity into that situation.

“The more you educate people, the more you engage people in conversation about bias, the greater the understanding is going to be,” he said.