Students of all colors, races, religions, sexual orientations, genders, and immigration statuses need a quality education.
*Spit. "Go back to your country." Bullying that targets students at schools with diverse student bodies who are competing during sporting events or other activities has become all too common in Nebraska schools.
This type of bullying is not new for schools, particularly those with a large minority population, so why haven’t Nebraska schools addressed the bullying? All too often, we hear “It’s just kids being kids.” Wrong. Some school administrators do not relate these incidents to bullying and cannot fathom this being discrimination of any type. Those schools are overlooking their obligation to support all students and stop bullying no matter what the reason.
The ACLU of Nebraska recently responded to reports of bullying taking place at school-sponsored athletic events including Lexington’s middle and high school volleyball games at North Platte and Minden. In these instances, some North Platte and Minden students twisted the use of the “Americana” theme to bully Lexington’s Latino athletes. Schools often use themes (i.e. military, pink-out for breast cancer awareness, Halloween, white-out) for their fans to participate in during the game as a way to unify the student body. The Americana theme ordinarily involves patriotic clothing and the colors red, white, and blue. Unfortunately, during the Minden and North Platte games, the students used the Americana theme as an excuse to yell “out of the border” every time the volleyball went out of bounds, yell “go back to your country” to Lexington fans walking by, wear “border patrol” shirts, and hold banners simulating a faux wall.
As a result, a Lexington volleyball player noted “Some of my volleyball teammates found themselves quitting; they did not want to be under this type of environment.” The volleyball player went on to explain that a volleyball game, a friendly competition and team bonding event, all of a sudden became a hostile environment. This is incredibly troubling for the individual student and impacts a broader issue. Robust participation in school sports relates to higher GPAs and less school absences which are critical for educational success.
Other students voiced their opinion of the border patrol shirt which represented much more than what it states at face value. To some students, “The border patrol shirt wasn’t just a regular fun t-shirt. Those students clearly know that many people from Lexington come from Mexico, Guatemala or other South and Central American countries. The students used this shirt as a means to threaten and demean Lexington students or families who may or may not be undocumented.” Parents also expressed their concern after their children came home that night “heartbroken and not understanding why [North Platte students] were so mean to them.”
Unfortunately, these incidents are occurring more and more often in Nebraska as indicated by the Department of Education through the National Center for Education Statistics, noting that Nebraska’s rate of bullying on school property is currently the highest in the country and has been increasing since 2011. As of 2015, 26.3% of students in Nebraska have reported having been bullied on school property. Nebraska comes in second for cyberbullying rates, tying with two other states.
Too often, students will claim their bullying is free speech. While students do enjoy free speech rights at schools and at extracurricular activities, these rights are not paramount to every student's right to access an education free from harassment, bullying and discrimination. The guidance we sent to every Nebraska school district is intended to help schools balance these rights.
While schools have the legal obligation to support all students and give them the best chance possible to graduate, we all have a role to play. Parents and other adults can model supportive behavior, speak up when we see someone being picked on, support trainings for educators in their community, hold our school administrators accountable, and support and advocate for stronger state law with more protections for students as many of our sister states have. Together, we can help our schools focus on providing a safe learning environment and our students focused on learning.