Are Schools Responsible for the Racist Behaviors of Students?

In my little town
I grew up believing
God keeps his eye on us all…
Paul Simon, My Little Town

I spent the bulk of my teaching career—over 30 years—in a single small town in southeastern Michigan. When I started teaching there, the district was distinctly rural. There were several farmers on the school board, including one who came to board meetings in overalls. When I was hired, my principal described the district as the far edge of white flight.

Over time, a lot of that farmland was carved up into new subdivisions and a 600-lot mobile home park—folks moving out of the inner suburban ring around Detroit, looking for good schools and politically conservative neighbors. I thought about my principal’s remark all the time: white flight.

There was racism, all right. I experienced it in my own family. But I was never afraid to talk openly to my students about diversity and equity. Teaching music, I was determined to open their minds to the roots of the music they were marinating in.

I liked my students—and I liked the teachers I worked with. We probably didn’t talk about discrimination and intolerance as much as we might have; some of my former students, now adults, have shared their resentment at how relentlessly white and narrow-minded their classmates and neighbors were.

And it’s gotten worse, I believe, although I no longer live there. The elected school board has grown more conservative—and more vocal about issues du jour, including racism, sexual preferences, to mask or not to mask–and dealing with student discipline.  These days, there is a local incarnation of Moms 4 Banning Stuff, and packed, heated board meetings.

Now, the district is being sued over claims of racial harassment:

A former Hartland High School student is suing the school district and three district administrators, over what she claims was a relentless and cruel pattern of racism directed at her and other Black students while she attended the school.

Tatayana Vanderlaan, now 20, filed a lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District that claims Hartland Consolidated School District and administrators were negligent in failing to stop racist attacks that included students saying Vanderlaan “should get lynched.”

The suit describes repeated racism directed at Vanderlaan from the time she first entered Hartland High in 2019. Vanderlaan says white schoolmates directed racial slurs at her, including the N-word, and that administrators did not address the behavior, even as it escalated.

Vanderlaan says she’s seeking “accountability,” a word that strikes me as rather perfect—isn’t accountability the holy grail of all the school reforms we’ve been chasing for decades? And furthermore, just who is to blame for vile and racist behaviors in students? Are they being held accountable?

The behaviors are vile and racist—confederate flags, the N-word, lynching threats, references to the plantation and hurtful ridicule referencing personal appearance. The taunts happened at school, but also on social media. Administrators are named in the suit, and teachers painted as dismissive.

The U.S. Attorney’s office also opened an investigation, after Vanderlaan filed a complaint. I am not surprised that former students and those still attending this school described other racist incidents to investigators. Some things, I suppose, never change.

But who’s responsible?

I want to believe that teachers would interrupt these behaviors, that at least some students would stand up for what is right. But in another little Michigan town,  two brothers wore ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ sweatshirts to school. They were ordered by teachers and an assistant principal to remove them, because they were vulgar and profane—and for that seemingly appropriate action, the school has been sued by the boys’ mother, for suppressing their First Amendment rights:

The slogan…has become a popular form of political commentary, appearing on T-shirts and bumper stickers and is chanted at right-leaning rallies, the lawsuit says. Even members of Congress have used the phrase during speeches on the House floor, the suit states, yet no one has been censored or punished.

So—if Congressional reps are making vile and/or racist remarks, it’s now OK in middle schools?

It would be nice to think that the courts would support public school educators in their quest to keep schools from being overrun by ugly “free speech” that disrupts the learning process—and trust me, vulgar and racist speech have the capacity to do just that. Big time.

It would also be nice to think that policymakers could have an impact on hate speech and resulting violence. But making laws is one thing—getting people to believe they are fair and useful, and willingly follow them, is another.

The small town where I used to live and teach is in Livingston County—which has just declared itself a “Constitutional County” (spoiler: there’s no such thing). According to the Sheriff, a Constitutional County’s policing personnel do not have to enforce laws they find “unconstitutional”—specifically, a package of gun safety laws recently passed by the State Legislature. So there’s that.

Something has changed in this country, all right. Respect for the rule of law, respect for civic order and civil speech, respect for all our fellow citizens.

Just who are we going to hold accountable?

In my little town
I never meant nothing, I was just my father’s son.
Saving my money
Dreamin’ of glory
Twitching like a finger on a trigger of a gun

Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town


  1. To answer your question posed in your title–to some extent. If teachers do not teach against racism, students are left with the racist attitudes of their parents, which are substantial. But teachers are also members of their communities, so reflect them, too.

    If teachers haven’t been fighting racism, why are the conservagoons trying to ban “woke attitudes,” and CRT from schools and books about racism from school libraries. Those attacks are coming because teachers have been teaching against racism, somewhat effectively.



  2. Agreed, 100%, Steve. I know that many of my former colleagues in this district would never have allowed racist or vulgar speech in their classrooms–and were unafraid (as I was) to address the subject in lessons across the curriculum. Nobody ever filed suit against us, however.

    I am not defending the district–I think it bears some responsibility. But I also think that if kids are learning to say these things with impunity, that is a reflection not just of their home life, but of our morphing social values. Especially in the last, say, six years or so.



  3. We’ve come a long way in eliminating Racism, but we still have a Long Way to go.
    Recently I came in possession of some Mother Goose and an early Primer from the beginning and mid 20th century through my son who was hired by a client for remodeling a home they’d purchased. In clearing out the contents he found many boxes of old books to be disposed of, and he shared a few with me.
    Having been born in 1926, some of the content was familiar to me.
    But what shocked me in the MotherGoose published early in that century, was how “the Jew” was often the depicted Villain – and “the nigger” made the brunt of folly or ridicule. (For example, the *counting exercise*that later on morphed into “10 Little Indians.”
    I don’t recall being aware of this as a child, bu it tells me how commonplace the racism must have been during that time.
    One certainly has to realize how endemic and Intentional it has always been to be allowed and promoted in the school system.
    Without the example of a nourishing, unbiased home environment, and the school system’s role in aiding and abetting it, we can never hope to eliminate this travesty.

    Liked by 1 person


    1. Well put, Julia.
      I belong to a group of music teachers, and over the past few years, there have been many, many posts about songs we all used to sing, now being re-examined as reflecting discriminatory and racist values from another time. New teachers, especially, are reaching out to experienced music teachers to ask about what songs they avoid, and why. In my beginning band method book, for example, one of the tunes was “Jump Jim Crow.” You can teach pickup notes and sixteenth note combinations without using Jump Jim Crow–and you should.

      I congratulate new teachers for asking these professional questions. You are right that racism is endemic and intentional. I think it’s the responsibility of schools and teachers to avoid it, if they can–and to offer dialogue and correction when they recognize it.



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