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Nazi Symbols and Racist Memes: Combating School Intolerance

Updated: May 1, 2023

Many educators feel ill-equipped for the urgent and difficult task of identifying students exposed to extremist material online.

Some schools in Oregon are using a guide for teachers to spot signs of white nationalist ideology and potentially at-risk students.

Intrigued by the attack, they quickly found the gunman’s lengthy manifesto and an Instagram account that appeared to be his, so the senior dashed off a message in the jargon of white supremacists. “WAR IS ON THE HORIZON WE SHALL NOT LOSE WE SHALL SURVIVE,” he wrote, according to a screenshot.

Much to their astonishment, an answer popped up within 15 minutes: “This is my final message, this is my farewell.” Soon afterward, the account went dark.

“I did make a stupid decision,” the senior later said in an interview, thinking, at the time, “Oh, God, I just messaged the shooter!”

The Battle Ground student, who asked to remain anonymous, never committed violence. But his activity drew the attention of authorities, including the F.B.I., according to a law enforcement official. His experience on Discord is just one example of how vulnerable adolescents can easily access and become targets of extremist material on the internet.

As more such material spills from the web to young people and into classrooms nationwide, educators increasingly find themselves under pressure to combat this new front of hate. Given the rise in school shootings tied to far-right extremism, teachers — like law enforcement officials and parents — now face the difficult task of trying to identify which students risk being radicalized.

Many educators say they feel ill-equipped to recognize what students absorb from the web, much less to address it. In response, several organizations have started to try to provide some guidance, and new tools are emerging that help teachers spot signs of white nationalist ideology and at-risk students.

“What we heard from teachers, administrators and educators is that they were just not quite sure what to do,” said Eric Ward, the executive director of Western States Center, a nonprofit organization in Portland, Ore., that published a 47-page manual this year to advise teachers on how to confront extremism.

The number of Americans between the ages of 15 and 21 who saw extremist content online jumped by about 20 percent, to 70.2 percent from 58.3 percent, between 2013 and 2016, according to a study by James Hawdon, a sociology professor who runs the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Virginia Tech.

F.B.I. statistics logged 273 hate crimes in K-12 schools in 2018, down from 340 the previous year, but well above the 158 in 2013.

The Western States kit offers advice on addressing specific situations like finding a swastika carved in a library chair; reading a student’s paper that was based solely on white supremacist websites; and discovering that students flashed a white power sign in a yearbook picture. It also includes a guide to common white supremacist symbols.

The gap between the online universe of adolescents and adults yawns wide, experts said, and adults can be slow to learn about students’ exposure to extreme material. The Battle Ground case came to light after the senior talked about it with friends at a school in Beaverton, Ore., where he had once been a student.

Administrators at Western States said they would have advised against disproportionate punishment in that case, but they say educators should use those types of experiences to foster a broad discussion with students and parents.

A few years ago at Southridge High School in Beaverton, during an assembly featuring traditions from other countries, like Somali dance routines, a white student stood and raised a Nazi salute. Patrick M. Griffin, a teacher, said he quickly pulled the student out of the auditorium and explained why that was wrong.

Nazi symbols are easy to spot, but more subtle references drawn from white power ideology also surface, like students asking to organize a white student union.

After getting the tool kit from Western States, Mr. Griffin started incorporating some of its suggestions into his advanced history classes. He is using the nationalist struggles in Germany from 200 years ago to examine modern white nationalism.

The manual explains how to argue against the most common defenses of white supremacist ideology, and Mr. Griffin has braided that into discussions.

But the question of its effectiveness is a source of debate.

Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent and a terrorism expert, said that he supported teaching tolerance, but that there was no proof prevention programs work. “The idea of these programs was that if they could suppress the bad ideas there would be less violence, but there’s no evidence that this is true,” he said in an email.

When it comes to radicalization, white adolescent males are considered particularly vulnerable.

Max W. Thayer, 18, a senior at Southridge, said he recognized how classmates can get drawn into extreme material online, so he now speaks up if someone uses memes that push the boundaries too far. “If you are willing to post them publicly, you need to calm down and back off,” he said.

Max Thayer, 18, a senior at Southridge High School in Beaverton, Ore., speaks up if someone uses memes that push the boundaries too far.

Kaitlyn Washburn, 17, the student body co-president at Aloha. “People make jokes about topics that they should not,” she said.

“We are talking about young people who don’t yet have full-formed opinions and worldviews,” said Lindsay Schubiner, one of the manual’s three authors. “It is for that very reason that extremists often try to target them.”

The most common defense given by students, and sometimes their parents, is that using radical material constitutes free speech and does not necessarily intend to produce serious harm. But the courts have given schools wide latitude to set classroom standards.

It is impossible to predict which student wants to provoke outrage and which might become a mass gunman. Schools have serious protocols in place for an explicit threat like a student posing online with a gun.

But it can be hard for educators to tell where racist incidents will lead.

At Aloha High School, also in the Beaverton District, every time the Latino student organization holds a dance demonstration to attract new members, someone invariably posts a mocking video online with a comment like “Build a Wall,” said Paulina E. Alvarez-Izquierdo, a 17-year-old senior.

Many students try to use extremist material as a joke, laughing it off when challenged. But Ms. Alvarez-Izquierdo weighs carefully whether to challenge fellow students, knowing that a confrontation will make her feel unsafe.

“How do I know 100 percent that they are joking?” she said, “How do I know that this person is not going to come into school and target everyone who looks like me or talks like me?”

Spreading derogatory memes is part of high school life, noted Kaitlyn T. Washburn, 17, the student body co-president at Aloha. “People make jokes about topics that they should not,” she said. “I don’t think that they believe in white supremacy or Nazi ideals, but they are still perpetuating those ideas.”

Educators wrestle on several fronts with how to counter white power ideology, especially since students of color feel strongly that such ideas should be rejected publicly. Some teachers turn to programs like the one from Western States Center or the Southern Poverty Law Center, which offers a curriculum guide called Teaching Tolerance.

The independent nature of school districts, however, means there is no standard approach, and there has never been a thorough study on the effectiveness of such methods, said Peter Simi, a sociology professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and an expert on extremist organizations. American University in Washington, D.C., plans to start such a study this spring.

Back in Washington State, the student who had tried to communicate with the New Zealand shooter was sitting in school 12 days later when the F.B.I. showed up, he said.

“They asked me if I had any idea why they were there and I said that I had a pretty good idea,” the student said in an interview.

Rita Sanders, the spokeswoman for the Battle Ground School District, referred questions to the F.B.I. Shelley N. Gryz, a spokeswoman for the F.B.I. in Seattle, declined to comment.

The Battle Ground High senior said he did not face any legal fallout but called it a life lesson.

He said he recognized that people try to exploit teenagers, especially since his love of conspiracy theories attracted him to noxious web material.

“People our age are susceptible to a lot of things,” he said.

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