“Preventing and responding to hate speech in our schools is essential to ensuring equal educational opportunities for youth in Massachusetts,” said Acting U.S. Attorney William D. Weinreb. “All young people have a right to learn in a safe and welcoming environment that fosters respect for diversity and nurtures healthy development.”
The full day conference, “Hate Speech in K-12 Schools: Prevention and Response,” was organized by Weinreb’s Civil Rights Unit and held at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. The conference brought together a diverse audience of over 200 educators, school resource officers, school administrators, advocates, and community members from across Massachusetts for a series of panels and plenary sessions about addressing hate speech in Massachusetts schools.
Keynote speaker Maureen Costello, the Director of Teaching Tolerance at the Southern Poverty Law Center, spoke about the importance of addressing bias in schools. “Thanks to media coverage of hate speech incidents and the use of modern technology to bully or harass, we are more aware than ever of what vulnerable children face in school, and we have a profound responsibility to ensure that our schools are inclusive and free from bias,” she said. According to keynote speaker Steve Wessler, a Human Rights Educator & Advocate, “The impact [of hate speech] on students includes damage to their physical and mental health as well as to their ability to succeed in school. Additionally, degrading language can escalate from words to violence when no one speaks up for civility and respect.”
The sessions covered a variety of topics including how to address the needs of vulnerable populations who are disproportionately victimized by hate speech and how to prevent hate speech and harassment online and through social media. One panel shared best practices in prevention programs and how to create and maintain positive and welcoming school environments. A panel of legal experts also discussed the legal obligations of schools with respect to harassment and hate speech, including First Amendment protections that apply to students in schools, and when hate speech becomes a hate crime.
The Civil Rights Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office was established in 2015 with the mission of enhancing federal civil rights enforcement. For more information on the Office’s civil rights efforts, please visit www.justice.gov/usao-ma/civil-rights.