Words can wound. And when hurtful words are directed at people who have been historically marginalized within a larger community, they can leave lasting scars.
The impact of harmful language in our own school community came into sharp focus last spring, sparked by dozens of anonymous personal testimonies by Black alumni and students posted on the Instagram account BlackatPCI.
The recognition of this problem also led to a reckoning, with calls from students and adults alike to examine the effectiveness of Packer’s community norms, policies, and disciplinary procedures.
While students in the Upper School worked closely with administrators two years ago to write a hate speech policy to be implemented in the division, this fall was the first time that Middle School students were invited to participate in the shaping of their own divisional policy. They reviewed the original hate speech policy, along with faculty and staff, and shared their ideas on how to make the Middle School a better and safer community.
The students who worked on the policy were motivated by the importance of the topic.
Grace Ko ’28 participated “because hate speech is something that probably me and all the other people who [volunteered] have faced in our lives — possibly because of our race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.”
“I have heard that Middle School can be the most challenging years,” said Alex Doctoroff ’28. “We are all trying to make friends and have a good time, but sometimes certain jokes or comments can go the wrong way. Instead of celebrating differences, people may make fun of those who are different from them by saying offensive comments about how someone looks, talks, or acts.” He pointed out that technology and social media can lead to even more damaging “viral” sharing of hate speech.
Jack Pires ’28 shared that he wanted to help the community. “2020 has been tough, and I [just wanted to] make things equal.”
When the policy was finalized, Jeremy Hawkins, a Middle and Upper School health teacher and the Middle School Diversity and Equity Coordinator, led a Zoom Chapel introducing it to Middle School students. Hate speech “stands in opposition to our Mission and Core Values, harming both individuals and the community as a whole,” he said, reading the policy aloud, then continuing to its age-appropriate definition of hate speech:
In Packer’s Middle School, hate speech is defined as any communication, in speech, writing, or behavior that is discriminatory, threatening, or harmful towards an individual or group of people on the basis of an aspect of their identity. Hate speech includes words, terms, jokes, behaviors, and actions that are intended or understood to attack, mock, diminish, demean, or dehumanize others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender or gender identity, disability or disease, group affiliation, or other aspect of their identity. Hate speech can take place online, in writing, through images, over the phone, or in person. (Read full policy)
Jeremy then presented three scenarios and led discussions among the students acknowledging how the scenarios represented examples of hate speech — and what they would do if they had been witnesses.
Alex called the policy “a good reminder to always be mindful of what we say and what we do. [It] makes it very clear what hate speech is... and that there are consequences for not abiding by the policy.”
The students didn’t do this work alone, of course. “It was definitely a faculty village that helped realize this policy,” said Jeremy.
Fahd Abdus-Sabur, Vidya Misra, and Semeka Smith-Williams launched conversations about revising the Middle School hate speech policy last spring. That work went into high gear this fall. The Middle School Equity and Engagement Council, with the help of the deans, convened focus groups of colleagues, students, and parents to help shape the policy. Head of Middle School Noah Reinhardt approved and finalized it.
Alex captured the goal at the root of this vast communal effort: “Hopefully, people will read this policy, and be encouraged to be kind and supportive to one another.”