Acton Boxborough's Response to Acts of Hate
BY NOSARA MAXWELL '23
On Saturday, March 6, students at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School received an email from Principal Larry Dorey. The email outlined two acts of hate that had taken place at the high school: in one bathroom, a swastika drawn; in the other, racist language scrawled on the walls. On March 21, students and families received another notification: this time, from Betty Baker, the associate principal. Administrators at the high school had discovered yet another swastika in a bathroom. These acts sparked outrage in the community, and students expressed dissatisfaction with the school’s lack of action.
This school year, the administration at ABRHS has increased efforts to bolster transparency. These steps have led to an increase in emails received about acts of hate that transpired at the high school. Rising public awareness about the hate rooted in the Acton-Boxborough community has in turn led to frustration directed towards the school.
Previously, families received emails about racist incidents, but they did not receive one for each occurrence. This year, ABRHS implemented a new procedure that originated in Boston Public Schools where everyone is informed every time an act of hate occurs. Said procedure is also in accordance with the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) recommendation of making all incidents of hate public.
In response to the hate crimes, the administration expressed commitment to combating hate in the community and continuing to educate students and staff. Ms. Baker has been the face of the administration's response to the hate crimes, sending emails and making announcements on behalf of the district and high school administration. Baker values the district’s practices around hate and expresses its commitment towards maintaining the best possible practices. “It is important for our entire community to know sort of what we're dealing with... so when you only put it out for the folks who know that topic more than the rest, you're living in a different reality,” says Baker. The administration has access to far more information surrounding hate in the district compared to the rest of the community, and they are trying to equalize access to that information.
Typically, the administration and counselors use advisory to facilitate conversation about hate. Baker describes why the administration looks towards advisory: “There are very few classes that everybody is taking, but we know everybody has advisory.” During the twenty-six-minute period, the administration utilizes various resources to educate students about hate through videos, conversation, announcements, and presentations.
The advisory curriculum focuses on the pyramid of hate, “reminding us about the effect of the bottom of the pyramid, including things like microaggressions, unconscious bias, slurs, and the effect that that has not just on individuals, but on our community and where that fits in the potential for escalation around hate,” Baker says.
However, despite the efforts of the administration to combat hate and bias in the community, students and community members criticize its actions. A common thread among students is their dissatisfaction surrounding the announcements and emails coming from the administration. One student described the emails as seeming “overly forgiving” towards the perpetrators.
One Jewish student, Rachel Walker, explains that she feels the advisory period is ineffective because “the people who need that education the most are the ones who won’t pay attention, and no one is making them.” Each teacher runs advisory differently, so not all students have the same opportunities to educate themselves.
Many students understand that the administration is making an effort, but they feel that it is not enough. Freshman Seth Rosenman, talked about his view of the administration’s response: “Right now what's happening in response to these acts of hate isn't enough. It's not working.” For Seth, a Jewish student, the hate crimes were originally shocking, but now each time he says that, he feels more disappointed and frustrated. “It feels like this kind of endless cycle where there isn't really a solution and they don't catch the perpetrators, and then they say okay, we're going to try it again this time and hope it works,” says Rosenman. This sentiment is echoed by many students in the district that are affiliated with various clubs and organizations committed to combating hate.
Rosenman is working to create a Jewish Student Union at ABRHS where all students could “support each other, talk about their experiences with being Jewish, fighting antisemitism, celebrating Jewish culture, and also a place where activism against antisemitism and hate can more broadly stem from." The club was recently approved.
Rosenman is not the only one with goals to combat hate and create change. Clubs at ABRHS have committed to creating change and educating the community around them. A World of Difference Peer Leaders, Acton-Boxborough Students for Equity and Justice (ABSEJ), Dear Asian Youth (DAY), and other student organizations at the high school are working towards fostering equality. ADL Peer Leaders work with students to understand bias, ABSEJ has set specific goals to achieve greater equity within the schools, and DAY has created material for students to view in advisory.
Many students in these clubs are the ones expressing their dissatisfaction with the administration following the recent hate. While some of them are frustrated, they also expressed their understanding about the difficulty of education.
“The work we're doing in advisory, I think that's a really good start. But it feels like maybe it's not working to the best that it could be. We know that because we still see these incidents of hate in our school and in our community,” says Rosenman, suggesting for “[t]he administration to really look at ways that we can create a culture in the school that is more aware of the hate in our community and that is working to combat it on a more personal level.”
Baker and the administration team have received feedback from students and other community members, explaining that “it runs the gamut,” and that they have had positive feedback from members of the community “who are very thankful that there is more that we're putting out there.”
The administration also acknowledges the frustration that many people are sharing. “I've heard more recently this concern around it feeling either not enough or performative,” comments Baker, adding, “I do think all of that feedback is important because that's helping me hear what the impact is.” She explains that she hears the frustration, and she wants the community to know that the broadcasted messages “[aren’t] the entirety of the work that we're doing, and nor is the work that we're doing the entirety of the work that needs to be done.”
Baker explains the primary goals that the administration is working towards to combat hate and discrimination. She spoke about new hiring practices and working toward achieving a more diverse staff. Departments in the high school are aiming to change curriculum and focus on who is represented in their content. Baker added that they are looking closely at discipline data, determining the imbalances that exist.
Baker mentioned work surrounding “targeted education around bias, racism, homophobia, sexism, [and] xenophobia.” She continued, “for me personally, it's about microaggressions, which I don't like calling microaggressions anymore. I'd rather call them aggressions or just what they are, as racist or homophobic comments.”
In response to feedback, the administration has made changes to the content of the announcements and emails, altering tone and including answers to questions that many students asked for elaboration on the punishment for the perpetrators of the hate crimes. “I am committed to continue putting out what's going on… I think the best I can do is to say I'm going to keep listening and working on it,” adds Baker.
The district as a whole has many changes that it seeks to make in the next few years, and the high school is focusing on creating similar changes; the ABRHS administration is continuing work on educating staff about inequity.
“We're looking at many areas of repression and marginalization, learning more about what that looks like…. and what that means for your spheres of influence. What can we immediately affect? What can you affect in your classroom? Or what can you affect in your smaller space, as well as the macro level?” reports Baker. She describes the training and education that high school staff experience.
The high school staff is working to create a better environment for the students and wants to prevent hate and microaggressions from existing in the student body. “We can, I think, work collectively as a student and staff community to understand what that experience looks like… making sure that we are individually doing better and apologizing when we are not, and learning how to be an upstander,” says Baker.
Students and administrators agree on the ultimate goal of eliminating hate from the community. Sophomore Rachel Walker expresses how she hopes that everyone, including the administration, will unite behind this goal. “I think that harsher words [from the administration] would help.” Seth Rosenman agrees, explaining, “Education is one of the most important parts of it, and then also activism. We've got to make sure that we're standing up for one another.”
The community strives to achieve greater transparency concerning the punishment of the perpetrators of the hate crimes. Students at ABRHS call for real change and resolutions instead of the performative measures that the administration has been accused of taking. Many want the administration to take more action to counter the current hate in the Acton-Boxborough community. We all look toward the future, hoping these criticisms are met with change.