Sunday / May 26

Identity-Safe Schools Stand Up to Hate

It started slowly for my mother, a teenager as Hitler rose to power. She remembered they started having assemblies with rallies of Hitler Youth. She and other Jewish students were excluded, taken to the office. Her best friend Gicka, who lived next door, stopped coming over. My mom begged her parents to let her go and find out why. They reluctantly agreed. Gicka’s brother opened the door and then slammed it in my mother’s face. He and Gicka had joined the Hitler youth. Shortly after, she was no longer allowed to attend public school and was moved to a Jewish school.

Then on November 9, 1938, hooligans were throwing rocks at my mother’s house. They called the police, who just laughed. Her family escaped with the help of their non-Jewish housekeeper. Luckily, Quakers invited her family to live with them in England. On that night, now known as Kristallnacht (night of the broken glass), Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed across Germany.

My father’s family wasn’t so lucky. On Kristallnact, his Jewish school was burned to the ground. The next day, his mother stood in long lines at different consulates in Berlin, seeking refuge. Nearly all turned them away. They escaped to Shanghai, the only place that gave everyone visas.

We all know what happened to millions who were left behind: Jews, Catholics, Gays, dissidents, and the disabled.

As I grew up, I asked, why didn’t you leave sooner? The answer?

“We thought it could not possibly get worse.”

Fast forward to today. Where do we find ourselves?

Shortly after the presidential elections, Teaching Tolerance surveyed over 10,000 educators who reported over 2,500 incidents of bigotry and harassment in schools (Wallace & Lamotte, 2016). An African American parent shared with me that her daughter and two others were targeted on Instagram. Nooses were superimposed on their photos. Another girl’s face was alongside a gorilla’s face with these words “I am gonna bring my noose to school.” In elementary schools, immigrant students are taunted: “You will be deported. We’re building a wall to keep you out.” And Muslim children are called terrorists.

As educators, we cannot afford to brush any incident, whether seemingly small or large, under the rug. We can teach students at all ages to treat one another with empathy and to respect differences.

In Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn, (2013) we help educators create welcoming environments. “In identity safe classrooms teachers strive to ensure students that their social identities are an asset rather than a barrier to success in the classroom.” By creating positive relationships among students of all backgrounds, everyone becomes a valued member of the learning community. This evidenced-based model helps all students feel included and do better in school. It is not done overnight, but through sustained, ongoing efforts. Here are six ways to create identity safety:

  1. Diversity is a resource for learning. Teach students they are “equal bit different.” Provide opportunities for students to share from their backgrounds across the curriculum. Have them read multicultural literature, write family stories, and invite their families to school.
  2. Mistakes are viewed as learning experiences. When an act of intolerance occurs, in addition to serious consequences, help those who spread the bigotry or hate learn from their behavior. Don’t give up on them; they can change their attitudes.
  3. Bystanders can learn to be upstanders who stand up and speak up for themselves and others. Model this behavior and do role-playing activities where students build that internal confidence to speak up.
  4. Relationships lead to intergroup understanding. Provide opportunities for students to meet and build relationships with people who are different than them. Make positive relationships the mainstay of your classroom.
  5. Critical multiculturalism helps students learn about injustice. Teach students to analyze what they hear in the media and read in books. Help them recognize negative stereotyping and biased depictions of different groups and learn the many contributions of diverse peoples. We can challenge students to counter negative stereotypes.
  6. Taking a stand makes it safer for everyone. When an incident occurs, let your whole community hear that these types of behaviors are unacceptable and that everyone is welcome.

As educators, we hold the future in our hands. We don’t want to find ourselves telling the next generation “we thought it could not get worse.”


Kelly Wallace and Sandee LaMotte, CNN Harassment in Schools Skyrockets After Elections, Teachers Report retrieved on April 21 from

Steele, D.M. and Cohn-Vargas, B, Identity Safe Classroom, Places to Belong and Learn Corwin, Thousand Oaks, 2013

Southern Poverty Law Center, The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools 2016 retrieved from

Written by

Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D works with educators to create identity safe classrooms and schools. As a consultant, she presents, writes, coaches, and produces films about bullying prevention, implicit bias, inclusion, compassion and belonging. She also leads environmental education groups to the Makengue Reserve in Nicaragua. Becki worked in educational settings for over 35 years as a teacher and administrator. Formerly, as Director of Not In Our School, she published the Identity Safe and Inclusive School Program, a comprehensive guide for creating identity safe secondary schools. She is the co-author with Dorothy Steele, Ed.D of Identity Safe Classrooms, Places to Belong and Learn. Her website, features additional blogs and films. 

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