Five words: the N-word, bitch, terrorist, retarded and gay, could be off limits for Saucon Valley High School students–under certain circumstances–under a proposed hate speech policy that was discussed at a school board meeting Tuesday.
“All these words (would have) to be used in a derogatory manner with malicious intent,” high school principal Beth Guarriello said. She stressed that if the words were being discussed in a historical context–such as in a classroom setting–the policy would not apply.
All of them were identified by students who participated in a spirit group and by staff in the spring, she added. The words were identified as “priority” hateful words that kept “popping, popping, popping as being overwhelmingly heard or prevalent.”
School board solicitor Mark Fitzgerald suggested during a review of the policy that disruptive language also be highlighted in the description of hate speech.
Board member Bryan Eichfeld questioned the wisdom of banning the five words, although he stressed that he personally is “passionate against racism.”
“My daughter is married to a black man. We love him. He’s great. I have a beautiful black granddaughter,” he said. “I want to make clear that I’m not doing this as some spit-in-the-cup…whatever.”
“The hate speech and the list of words…I don’t understand that,” he continued. “I’m not quite sure how you list words. I can name 100 words that you wouldn’t have on your list.”
“And those words are still not OK,” Guarriello interjected.
“I’m trying to get a handle on how we can list words that are more hurtful than other words,” Eichfeld responded.
“Our approach would be educate, educate, educate; not punish, punish, punish,” district superintendent Dr. Craig Butler said of the proposed policy.
She said a goal of the policy is to give staff the opportunity to turn situations in which the words are used in a derogatory manner into “teachable moments.”
“We’re really not interested in ‘consequencing’ or disciplining students immediately,” she said. “We want them to learn and we want them to learn how it affects the people that they’re using these words toward.”
A website called Tolerance.org proscribes a four-step protocol for dealing with derogatory language, step one being to call out the individual who used the word.
Guarriello told the board, “we’ve instructed the students and the staff to stop the conversation and say, ‘Hey, that’s not how we talk here in Saucon. We’re better than this here in Saucon. Please don’t use those words. They’re hurtful words.'”
Step two of the process–which is only triggered if a student is heard using a banned word more than once–involves educating the student who used the word about its historical context and harmfulness in “restorative conferences,” she said.
Beyond that, if the use of a banned word or banned words is pervasive, there will be a concrete disciplinary consequence such as detention or an out-of-school suspension.
Guarriello said the potential for discipline is there to show students that the school is serious about making sure Saucon Valley schools are tolerant places.
The four steps listed in the Tolerance.org protocol were not listed in the proposed revision to the Code of Conduct, but can be added for clarity, she told the board.
Eichfeld questioned the need for the disciplinary component to the policy.
“To take a kid and put him in a three-day out-of-school suspension for saying the N-word once in a frustrated situation–and I’m speaking from my granddaughter’s perspective, I don’t want her to be facing this garbage in the future–it seems to be an overstep in their direction,” he said.
“I can understand how it could read that way,” Guarriello said. “But if it’s habitual now it’s a choice.”
Eichfeld also questioned the use of the term “protected class” in addition to racial and ethnic minorities in the text of the proposed policy.
Guarriello said that term refers to any marginalized group and is meant to be all-encompassing, since an actual list of groups that can be targets for hate speech would be quite long.
“Common sense should prevail” in the enforcement of the policy, Butler said.
Issues involving racism in Saucon Valley schools surfaced following a fight at a pep rally in the fall of 2016, and have been documented in the national media by Rolling Stone magazine.
A film crew from ABC News’ Lincoln Square Productions has been filming a documentary about racism in the district and various responses to it since the summer, although filming in the schools stopped after numerous parents complained to the board about it at the start of the school year.
To watch the complete Nov. 14 school board meeting on YouTube, click here.