QUINCY -- Quincy High School is taking a proactive approach to dealing with a rise in what it calls casual hate speech among students.
The school has held an assembly, with another one slated for Tuesday, and classroom discussions designed to help students remember that their differences are "something to celebrate rather than turn into a situation where someone doesn't feel safe or respected," QHS Principal Danielle Arnold said. "The one similarity we all have is that we are Quincy High School."
A recent survey revealed some startling statistics. Ninety percent of students have heard another student at QHS use a racial slur. Sixty-seven percent have heard or seen someone at QHS make fun of someone because of a disability. Eighty-nine percent have heard or seen someone at QHS make fun of someone based on how they look.
Things heard in the hallways bother QHS senior Hannah Brice.
"I don't think people should have the right to say this kind of stuff to students who can't control where they're from or why they're like this. There's a huge problem with people using the ‘N' word. I hate that word, even if it's not directed at me," Hannah said.
‘Just how it is'
"Most of what they're reporting is things that are not necessarily being said with ill intentions but that it seems students are simply using slurs as part of their general conversation with one another, almost as though they think it's acceptable," Arnold said. "So what we're doing is we're talking to them about how words that they use casually may be offensive and hurtful to others."
QHS senior Deven Smith said student speech nowadays is "kind of slurred" because of the influence of social media and music.
"It's just how it is," Deven said.
Hate speech, defined for the QHS discussions, is not just any speech that is directed toward one group. It's speech that offends, threatens or insults groups based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability or other traits.
Deven said he's had some comments directed at him, and he's heard other remarks. "It bothers me, but at the same time, you just let it go by, not hold onto it and go on with my day," he said.
But he's careful with his own words.
"I'm just trying to live a Christian life, not trying to bring people down," he said. "It's just all about being positive. A lot of people are depressed. You can tell just by how they are in the hallways with heads down, music blaring."
Students report hearing hate speech in the hallways between classes and the same sentiment carried into action, like bullying, in gym classes.
"Just as an example, some kid throwing the ball as hard as they can at another kid's face and laughing. Somebody needs to step in there. It's so obviously bullying," one QHS senior said. "Guys pick on a smaller guy just because he's smaller. Girls are just as bad, but not as upfront."
Home environment, maturity levels and even national politics tie into what students say to each other. "Right around the time President Trump was brought into office and nominated as president, it got really bad," Hannah said. "It's died down a little, but it was like ‘Oh, Trump's our president. We can do whatever we want.'"
QHS senior Sidney Heck said while hate speech hasn't been directed at her, she hears it between students. "It really isn't something I want to go on at my school," she said.
Talking about the issue is a step in the right direction, but "it will start making a difference when everyone puts forth (efforts against hate speech). You can't have half the school doing it and half not," Sidney said.
Teacher Michelina Sullivan said just opening the dialogue can help create an atmosphere of understanding at the school.
"One purpose of these discussions is for our students to learn how to be able to have conversations exploring perspectives outside of their own, not to change their minds on an issue, but to know how to create a culture of conversation," Sullivan said. "It comes back to the golden rule of treating others as you would want to be treated, and that is a life lesson I hope they take with them at the end of the day."
Some students want to see consequences tied to using hate speech and consistently enforced.
"If you do this, then this needs to happen and that does not happen all the time," Sidney said.
"I definitely think teachers are going to be more aware of it. Teachers and administrative staff said they will try to step in more with hate stuff in the hallway," Hannah said.
"Everyone here -- no matter what race, gender, sexual orientation, income, political affiliation or disability -- should feel part of our school," Arnold said. "It is not about one group, not about someone who does something we disagree with, not about the presidential election, not about free speech. It is only about creating a common language of respect and being the best people and the best high school we can be."