It’s that time of year when seniors play “pranks” as a final goodbye to their high school days. Intended to cause havoc, senior pranks may be planned for weeks or months leading up to graduation. These pranks are often harmless, fun and light-hearted and, in the best of cases, reflect a positive climate and school spirit.
But some pranks have the opposite effect. They are offensive, harmful to individual students and negatively impact school climate. These pranks are often bias-related, involving racism, sexism, heterosexism, anti-trans and anti-immigrant bias. For example, students have hung Confederate flags on school grounds or replaced U.S. flags with Confederate ones and a few years ago, three students carried and waved Confederate flags in the school parking lot as parents and students arrived. In the midst of the 2016 presidential election campaign, seniors built an actual wall with the sign, “We Built the Wall First” leaving Latinx students feeling hurt and targeted. Students at a California middle school organized a “gender swap,” in which students switched clothing based on gender. This caused distress, especially for transgender, gender non-conforming and non-binary students. Students have painted racist and anti-trans graffiti on their rival school’s property, including the phrases “whites only” above a drinking fountain and “trans only” next to a bathroom. In a Maryland suburb, some students drew racist, anti-Semitic and heterosexist graffiti “everywhere,” which included specifically targeting and naming their school’s African-American principal. At a school in Minnesota, seniors sent sexist and objectifying mail to more than fifty homes. Another group of seniors used t-shirts to spell out racist and heterosexist slurs at a senior picnic and then posted photos on Snapchat and Instagram. Indeed, these so-called pranks are often amplified on social media and sometimes planned with this in mind. These incidents have resulted in school-level punishments such as suspension, being barred from attending graduation or criminal investigations.
While students typically claim such pranks are “just a joke,” they actually convey messages of hate and bias. Pranks can signal who “belongs” in the school and who does not. Students in the targeted group, who may already feel unwelcome, can end up feeling even more marginalized and unsafe. For other students who feel different, excluded, or vulnerable for any reason, they may worry that they’ll be next. These pranks can also illuminate underlying bias that has gone unaddressed. For example, in the predominantly white school where students built a wall as a senior prank, the small minority of Latinx students may have already felt isolated and targeted, but those feelings, issues and structures had not yet been confronted.
Bias-related pranks can be extremely harmful to school communities. When it becomes a public incident, school administrators may feel pressured to make general statements of concern and at the same time, minimize the impact by portraying the prank as an anomaly rather than owning what it says about their school’s culture. But challenging as it may be to address the issues, no bias or hate incident should be swept under the rug or brushed aside quickly. Here are some suggestions for what schools and communities can do:
- School administrators can be sure updated policies that prohibit incidents motivated by bias are in place and that those policies explicitly protect all students. When an incident occurs, you should inform all members of the school community by sending a communication with a strong, clear message that reinforces the school’s values around diversity, equity and inclusion. It is important to also delineate both the short- and long-term steps the school will take to address the issue. Follow up resources for families can be sent home.
- Classroom teachers and other school staff can initiate discussions with students about the particulars of why the prank was biased, how it contributes to a negative school climate and how it can make certain students feel marginalized or unsafe. You can talk with students about the meaning behind symbols of hate (e.g. Confederate flag, swastika, noose); stress the importance of words and symbols; and help students understand and empathize with those targeted by these symbols.
- As a society, no one is immune from bias. In a regular and ongoing way, be proactive and engage your school in anti-bias education through programs that promote an inclusive and equitable school climate. Teach anti-bias lessons in the classroom. As you do so, foster empathy by helping students think of times when they or someone they know has been targeted. Help them understand who is often targeted in their school (in senior pranks and in other ways) and understand that those in other marginalized groups may feel worried about being the next target.
- When an incident extends beyond the school walls or involves members of the community, it is important to bring community leaders together to discuss what can be done to promote a safe, respectful and inclusive community for all. This can include students, families, school administrators, local elected officials, law enforcement, community leaders, local business owners, community-based organizations and any other people whose expertise and position can be leveraged for the greater good.
We should work hard to prevent such incidents, so that we can be celebratory and joyful at this time of year. But if and when bias-based pranks take place, and they surface underlying hate, we should be prepared with positive actions to heed their warning.