When I attended my first Black Lives Matter protest back in June, I was totally blown away by how meticulously it was organized. Thousands of New Hampshire residents joined forces and peacefully took to the streets of my town to collectively speak out against the brutal and unjust murders of George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, along with many other Black Americans. As I watched dedicated volunteers pour their time and energy into each moment, I marveled at how such a unifying event could have been so quickly organized by a bunch of teenagers.
Yes, you heard me right. Thanks to the courageous students of our local high school, this incredible protest was made possible.
Our country is encountering an overwhelming amount of division right now, but there are so many young people who give me undeniable hope that real change is possible. Donald Trump may be fighting like hell to stir up continued hate, racism, fear, and bigotry across our nation, but I honestly think that he’s no match for the next generation of teens and young adults who are fighting even harder to stand up against those endangering practices.
And after learning about some teenagers who managed to get every single public school in Oregon to make a sweeping policy change, I’m even more emboldened in my beliefs.
This past July, Sandy High School seniors Molly Izer and Josiah Rothwell started a Change.org petition urging their campus to ban hate symbols in the student handbook and dress code. A student-written letter was also sent to Oregon Governor Kate Brown highlighting the importance of disallowing images like the Confederate flag from making an appearance at their school.
“It’s no secret that the racism within Sandy High School is pervasive and unaddressed,” Izer writes on Change.org. “Students within our halls proudly use racial slurs, make racist jokes, and wear hate symbols without reprimand. In this year alone I documented thirteen different uses of the confederate flag within our student body. This environment not only encourages students to think this behavior is acceptable but also, in its compliancy, makes students of color feel unsafe and unvalued.”
Not only did over 6,700 people sign the petition, but Governor Brown, along with other state reps, also wrote to the Oregon State Board of Education on behalf of the students. The result? Public schools in every county adopted the hate symbol ban and instituted an extensive “All Students Welcome” policy that ensures every child can enter classrooms that are free of discrimination, harassment, and racially-charged bullying.
“This student and others from across Oregon have come forward to show us the extreme disruption and harm that hate symbols cause,” Director of the ODE Colt Gill wrote in a September 18th letter to superintendents across the state. “When we hear from students that their safety, mental health, well-being and ability to learn are threatened, we must listen, trust, and take immediate action. This policy change begins that action.”
So basically, some badass kids saw a grave problem, took persistent action to create a tangible solution, and managed to get every single public school in their state to change for the better.
Obviously, it would be totally awesome if schools everywhere already had this policy in place to protect the freedom and safety of Black students and teens of color who attend them. But since Oregon, like many other states, still has divisive and discriminatory legislation in place, it took a small handful of young people to break the cycle.
“Most of the student body knows very little about Oregon’s heavily racist laws and how past legislation has perpetuated systemic racism within our state,” Iver writes in her petition. “This is something that we believe MUST be addressed in order to begin working towards ample reform.”
Hopefully, we’ll be seeing more schools jump on board to adopt similar anti-hate policies that are strictly upheld and enforced. But until that actually happens, it’s so damn important to remind everyone how much is at stake if our educational institutions don’t start stepping up to create immediate and inclusive policy changes.
After the 2016 presidential election, a term was coined for the unsettling phenomenon that had been sweeping across many of our nation’s schools. Known as the “Trump effect,” the hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency ignited a wave of kids mimicking his racist, anti-semitic, xenophobic, and anti-LGBTQIA tactics. A 2019 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher gave further validity to “The Trump Effect” after reporting that post-election school bullying incidents in Virginia increased in the counties where Trump was victorious, yet did not increase in the areas where Hillary Clinton prevailed. In certain instances, children even repeated Trump’s own words while intimidating or bullying another student.
I shudder at the thought of how the “Trump Effect” may further influence our children if he’s allowed another four years to run amok in the Oval Office. But maybe, just maybe, if more schools start making the necessary anti-hate policy changes that Oregon’s youth have set in motion, we might not have to wonder.