Reports that school children of Hispanic and Muslim backgrounds have been harassed by fellow students in the wake of last week’s election should be troubling to everyone and acceptable to no one. The state’s governor and superintendent of schools have strongly condemned such behavior, and to that condemnation we add our voice.
There is no justification for allowing attitudes of intolerance and prejudice to seep into society. We don’t know how common such acts of taunting or bullying have been, but not a single incident should ever be abided by any responsible person, and that goes for the parents of those children who may be influencing such behavior. Such actions are nothing less than an extenuation of bigotry.
In the course of a presidential campaign that laid bare a national divide on many issues and attitudes, there have been examples of harassment on both sides. A middle-school student in Utah wrote openly in a piece published in the Deseret News of how he found himself the subject of ridicule by fellow students when it became known that his mother was a Democrat running for election to state office.
He assessed poignantly how his young peers, in their taunts and teases, were channeling behavior derived from the attitudes of the adults in their lives. “They had to have learned this somewhere,” he mused. “I think they are learning this kind of talk in their homes, and I would hope we could have more respect for each other.”
The same is undoubtedly true in the cases of those who have gone after students of minority backgrounds. Gov. Gary Herbert and Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson have called on parents and educators to take seriously every report of such behavior. In our view, the best approach to such incidents is one of zero tolerance.
In the Granite School District, reports of harassment have led officials to encourage witnesses to formally report all such activity. Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton reported hearing of cases in which children have said to other children of minority backgrounds, “Now you’re going to get deported,” or “Go back to your country.” In a social media post, she said, “I am sick about this.”
The possibility that young children have been targeted and given reason to fear for their safety is indeed sickening. The seeds of prejudice that lead to such harassment were undoubtedly nurtured by the harsh political rhetoric from the campaign trail. Debate over national issues has all too frequently gone to a dark place where some have chosen to look at issues as “us against them.”
Children can’t be expected to comprehend all of the intricacies related to national policy, but they are certainly capable of picking up on the prerequisites of prejudice. These reported incidents of harassment present an opportunity for deep self-reflection among parents. We ideally teach our children about compassion, tolerance and civility.
Fortunately, just as we are hearing these troubling reports about bullying, we are also seeing signs — quite literally — that convey the welcoming message that Utah and America embrace people of all backgrounds.
A South Jordan man, Austin Hudson, created signs for Election Day featuring Uncle Sam beckoning with the words: "You belong here" and "This is a country of immigrants and common people. No vote will ever change that. God bless America. God bless you."
Although Hudson intended to place the posters surreptitiously, word of the good deed spread. Messages have power for good or ill. When children begin to spread messages that demean others based on race or culture, the blame falls to those who should know better. We support Herbert and Dickson for speaking out, and we hope they inspire more Utahns to raise their voice in solidarity with their fellow Americans, especially children, who may feel targeted simply due to their religious faith, political affiliation or ethnic background.