In 2018, hate crimes and hate incidents happened in city parks, historic main streets, and in suburban neighborhoods.
Last spring, four Howard County teen-agers were charged with hate crimes for allegedly defacing their school with racial slurs, swastikas, and more.
Now, some Maryland students, parents, teachers, and principals are pushing back with a message of diversity, understanding, and empathy.
Among them are about 20 sixth, seventh and eighth graders gathered in the library at Julius West Middle School in Rockville. They're talking about the first day of spirit week.
But this spirit week is not about school pride. It’s about confronting bias and hate incidents in their school.
"We talk about how we can prevent this stuff from happening so it never happens again," says sixth grader, D’Angelo Reyes.
The group is using a curriculum called, No Place for Hate. It’s designed to cultivate an environment of inclusiveness through school-wide lesson plans, table talks, maybe by watching a video and discussing it, anything the students can come up with to engage others.
Students are expected to lead the charge in this curriculum. That's based on the idea that kids listen to their peers more than they listen to adults.
So, these kids are starting to spread their message.
No Place for Hate is new at Julius West and Kai Bennett-Young, another sixth grader, says when he tells his friends he’s going to organize an event or a discussion, their reaction is often harsh.
"Some of my friends are like that’s 'kind of weird,' but I feel like it’s the right thing to do," he says.
According to Maryland State Police, hate crimes and hate incidents increased by more than 30 percent in 2017. And according to the Maryland State Department of Education, incidents of school bullying also went up by more than 30 percent in the same year.
Data for 2018 is not yet available.
The Anti-Defamation League created the No Place for Hate program almost 20 years ago. In the last two years, Maryland has seen the program grow from only two schools to 36.
Seth Gordon-Lipkin, the education coordinator for ADL’s Washington D.C. regional office, says in order for this program to work, it needs supportive principals who let the students shape the conversations.
"It’s not a plug and play kind of program," he says.
Every school is unique so the students need to craft their own plans for how to combat bigotry, prejudice, and racism.
"In some schools that might look like in-classroom lesson plans, in some schools it might be rallies. In other schools, it might be demonstrations."
Every year, Gordon-Lipkin points out, the students change and the issues change. So, the No Place for Hate program needs to change.
All that takes time, and Gordon-Lipkin says some schools have been hesitant to give up time during the school day for something not focused on academics. But students are learning, he argues.
"Students are the primary voices in understanding what’s taking place and developing initiaves to respond to them."
Because this is the first year for the curriculum at Julius West Middle, teachers are counting on these students to be honest and up front about their observations.
Blair Freeman, a resource teacher of special education, asks kids at the meeting in the library how to get "more support, more buy –in for No Place for Hate?”
She wants to know how the kick-off event went from the students' perspective.
They tell her the lunchtime event that kicked off spirit week and was supposed to introduce students to No Place for Hate and encourage them to participate was chaotic. They saw a lot of No Place for Hate stickers tossed on the floor and kids goofing off. And overall, they say, the meaning of the event was lost.
One student says they had a substitute who had no idea what was happening when they got back to their classrooms and were supposed to discuss the program.
The teachers at the meeting take the feedback and agree to fan out around the school more. “Don’t expect the program to go well right off the bat,” one teacher tells them.
Maureen Costello, the education coordinator for the Southern Poverty Law Center, says No Place for Hate isn’t the only anti-bias program out there, but it’s received very good reviews from students. It’s tough to get candid conversations about prejudice going with kids, she says. But it's important.
"Schools that embrace the messiness of our politics and our human condition realize there’s racism in our society, sexism, homophobia, and see their role as tackling that, they will produce much better students in the long run. And much better citizens," Coastello says.
There’s data on bullying but there’s not much data on hate crimes in schools. In the past, many schools didn’t report hate incidents, Costello says, because they drew negative attention to the school. The schools hid behind what she calls a “privacy curtain.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has been compiling this data state by state for the past year and a half and expects to put out their first report in early 2019.
The incident at Glenelg High in Howard County last spring, when four seniors allegedly sprayed painted swastikas on fences and signs, racial epithets on the sidewalk, and anti-gay language on the school building itself, got national attention. School leaders gathered the community and denounced the hateful messages
"We immediately pushed back against what those individuals had done," says Kevin Gilbert, the director of inclusion and diversity at Howard County Schools. He says those incidents were attention-grabbing, but it’s more common in schools to hear racist, as well as anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ remarks in the hallways.
Howard County has one of the most diverse school systems in Maryland and one that has numerous five star schools according to recent Maryland state standards. But, Gilbert says state and federal policy makers, as well as the public sometimes, lose sight of a school's deeper mission.
"Everything in education has focused on high test scores. That has consumed much of the education community’s energy," Gilbert says. But, he argues, the ultimate goal is to help kids grow as human beings.
Earlier this week, a Howard County Circuit judge denied a request by lawyers for two of the teens to drop hate-crime related charges, ruling the First Amendment doesn’t apply in this case because the racial slurs and swastikas were scrawled on public property.
Meanwhile, the superintendent of Howard County Schools, Michael Martirano, has made Howard County the first school district to bring 'No Place for Hate' to every middle school in the county.
Their kick off event is in January.