Editorial: A duty to speak up when we hear hate speech

Recent incidents invoving students’ use of hate speech play against a rise in hate crimes in the U.S.

By The Herald Editorial Board

That high school students are using a high-tech version of “passing notes” in class isn’t surprising. But the messages sent out during a school assembly at Glacier Peak High School last week were disturbing and should prompt discussion among adults and youths about hate speech and the appropriate use of everyone’s rights of speech and expression under the First Amendment.

As reported Saturday by The Herald’s Zachariah Bryan, two students at the Snohomish high school face discipline for allegedly creating temporary Wi-Fi “hotspots” with their cellphones and naming them with “highly offensive, discriminatory, divisive, inappropriate and, in some cases, racially motivated messages,” according to school officials in a message to parents.

A screenshot of the network names showed racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic language, including swastikas.

The “hotspot” names would have been visible to students and others during a school assembly, who were using their phones to view available Wi-Fi networks.

The messages raised concerns — rightly — for student safety, and Principal Jeffrey Larsen took the mic during the assembly and sent students back to class.

The students involved face discipline according to district policy, a spokeswoman said, and local law enforcement has been contacted. And further community-wide discussion is expected among parent and community groups at school board and other meetings.

Those actions by Glacier Peak’s community stand in contrast to how a similar incident was handled at a high school in Wisconsin, prior to a junior prom in May. A photo, taken by a parent, shows a large group of current and former Baraboo High School boys raising their right arms, palms down and elbows locked, strongly resembling a Nazi salute.

After a photo of the salute circulated widely online recently, the school district investigated but declined disciplinary action against the students. “We cannot know the intentions in the hearts of those who were involved,” said the district Superintendent Lori Mueller. The district, Mueller said, was “not in a position to punish the students for their actions” because of their First Amendment rights.

Maybe not to punish, but certainly the district is in a position to pursue further discussions with the students involved and their parents about the inappropriateness of such speech, and how that image of smiling students raising their arms in an apparent Nazi salute can now follow them through college, career and social lives as adults.

Those thoughts may also be occurring to yet another former Snohomish County high school student.

The Gold Bar man, a former student at Sultan High School and now enrolled at Western Washington University in Bellingham, was arrested late last month in connection with a string of vandalism reports that involved racist and homophobic slurs and a threat of sexual violence.

Shayne Robert Merwin, 20, was booked into Whatcom County Jail on charges of residential burglary the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Name tags on the doors of student dorm rooms were vandalized and racial epithets were scrawled on a large outdoor sculpture and a building pillar on campus.

If Merwin is convicted, it’s a crime that will tarnish the record of a student who was presented the Gold Bar mayor’s Youth Achievement Award for 2017 and was named a Rotary Club student of the month that year.

The incidents above are playing out against a backdrop of an increasing number of reports of hate crimes in the nation and in Washington state.

Data collected by the FBI shows that for 2017, hate crimes reported to law enforcement rose for the third straight year; 7,175 hate crimes — crimes of violence motivated by hatred based on race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender or gender identification — were reported in 2017, up from 6,121 the year before, a 17 percent increase.

For Washington state, incidence of hate crimes increased a disturbing 32 percent; more than 600 hate-motivated offenses in 2017, as compared to just under 390 for the year prior. For Snohomish County, law enforcement agencies reported about 30 hate crimes in 2016, and an increase to 37 in 2017. It should be noted that some of that increase could reflect better reporting by the state’s municipal, county and other law enforcement agencies. Yet, the state report numbers show hate crimes as all too common here and cannot be ignored.

Parents and our communities place an increasingly heavy burden of responsibility on our schools to address issues that fall outside of academic achievement. Second only to parents and family, schools have the greatest opportunity to address the issue of what represents constitutionally protected speech and expression, that which does not traffic in disrespect, distrust and hatred of others.

But the larger community — in church, on sports teams and clubs and in our daily lives — also has a responsibility to recognize and correct when we hear and see hate-based comments from children, from others in public and, especially, when it comes out of our own mouths.

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