The number of taunting incidents directed primarily at Hispanic students in Columbus has increased, followed by disciplinary actions by school officials as necessary.

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. officials said they have received about a dozen reports of taunting in local schools since last week’s election, including some directed at elementary students.

First Presbyterian Church Pastor Felipe Martinez notified school officials that his two children, in middle school and high school, had the words “Build That Wall” spoken to them in school hallways Nov. 8, Election Day, and also leading up to the election.

Subsequently, another half dozen complaints were reported in BCSC’s secondary schools regarding taunts, said Larry Perkinson, BCSC employee and student assistance coordinator.

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In addition to those, the school corporation received about a half dozen reports of taunting from elementary students, he said. As of Thursday, there had been no additional reports and Perkinson said school administrators and teachers are continuing to work with students to make them feel safe and secure.

The incidents, which Perkinson described as harassment and intimidation, have been mainly directed at local Hispanic students, he said. Perkinson said he did not know whether other ethnic groups may also have been targeted.

The complaints involve individual students saying something inappropriate to classmates, Perkinson said. However, the reported incidents have not resulted in confrontations between students, he said.

Perkinson said the incidents have primarily been comments made in hallways by one student walking behind another, or to one student being passed by another.

He said he didn’t know how the dozen incidents might compare with the number of harassment or bullying complaints filed in a particular school year, as those reports are kept at the individual school buildings and are not reported to central administration unless a rash of incidents occur, such as what was reported since last week.

Ian Kohen, chairman of the Columbus Human Rights Commission, said commission officials have heard about the complaints.

In a statement, Kohen said the commission takes any allegations of discrimination seriously and does its best to resolve issues that come to its attention through collaborative efforts within the community, including residents, businesses, school administrators, law enforcement and community groups.

Taunting reports have thrust BCSC and other school districts across the nation into the spotlight on the heels of campaign rhetoric nationally about potential changes in U.S. immigration policies.

The Martinez complaint prompted a group of community residents to sponsor a Standing on the Side of Love rally last Friday night at The Commons, where about 300 participants called for an end to taunting.

The Columbus community as a whole was urged to promote peace, love and respect and to give support for children who feel vulnerable in the face of taunts at school.

A statement about the incidents by BCSC Superintendent Jim Roberts noted that the political campaign season inspired a myriad of reactions and behaviors within the Columbus community and local schools.

“In the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., some of these reactions have included remarks and behaviors that are particularly hurtful to many members of our student body and compromise our efforts to provide a welcoming and diverse learning culture of respect, fairness and trust for all,” Roberts wrote.

“Our school system will not tolerate actions that demonstrate a lack of understanding and respect for our differences,” he wrote.

BCSC schools have links on their websites to make it easier for students and parents to report incidents of taunting or bullying. The school corporation also has a crisis hotline number, 812-379-7710, to report incidents.

Roberts said the school corporation has taken corrective steps as warranted based on substantiated complaints against individual students.

School administrators continue to closely monitor what is happening in BCSC schools and have taken disciplinary steps from a range of options available, the superintendent said. That discipline can involve anything up to and including suspensions, depending on the severity of the offense.

Roberts and Perkinson said they could not reveal specific disciplinary measures as those details could identify students who are being disciplined.

School building administrators and staff members are communicating the expectations BCSC has for student behavior, Roberts wrote, and parents and students have been asked to report any concerns to the teacher or school administrator closest to the issue so that it can be immediately addressed.

“It is imperative that we address each other in a civil manner, openly communicate and actively demonstrate respect and appreciation,” Roberts wrote.

A social media posting of Roberts’ statement has received about 20,000 views and shares since it was posted Friday. The school corporation provided a copy of the statement in English and Spanish on its website, bcsc.k12.in.us

Help for parents

School officials have also sent out tips to school staff and parents about how to talk to young people about the election results and the campaign rhetoric that has been repeated in hallways.

“There’s never a bad time to talk to kids about respect,” Perkinson said. “None of us want hurtful things said to anyone.”

Perkinson said he believes that the incidents are the result of students hearing phrases such as “Build That Wall” at home, on television and through social media — and repeating them without realizing the hurt they could cause when leveled at an individual in a school hallway.

But school officials are also aware of freedom of speech concerns.

Some could argue that use of the phrases could be considered political free speech, Roberts said, noting that the phrases were widely disseminated on social media and in national news reports.

But protections for that start to dissipate when the speech becomes a means to harass or intimidate other students and becomes disruptive to the school environment, he said.

“When it’s a substantial disruption to the school environment, we have a pretty wide berth including administrative discipline, Roberts said.

Even if the words are part of the political climate, students still may not use hateful speech to harass and intimidate other students and cause disruption, he said.

Roberts said he was greatly encouraged by the message sent by the community through Friday’s rally, and impressed that so many representatives of Columbus’ diverse culture participated to be supportive of BCSC and the students.

“I love the culture of diversity we have here,” Roberts said. “I think it is representative of what our community is all about.”

How to teach tolerance to children

Here are some tips, provided by Larry Perkinson, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. employee and student assistance coordinator, about how to talk to children about respect and tolerance in the wake of campaign rhetoric leading up to and after the Nov. 8 election.

  • Talk to youth about the election and the kind of country you hope they will inherit. Share the traits you value in a candidate or elected official and ask children what traits they value.
  • When referring to a candidate or elected official, use their formal names — do not use nicknames that mock or insult people.
  • Be kind and demonstrate respect when talking to other people, or about a candidate or elected official.
  • Show curiousity and open-mindedness. If there is a disagreement, teach your children to ask, “Why do you think that?” instead of saying, “You’re wrong.”
  • Empower children to have their own opinions, and encourage them to express those opinions using civil and respectful language that draws on concrete evidence.
  • Encourage children to speak up when they see or hear something that denigrates anyone in their school. Teach them to calmly ask questions and correct misinformation in the face of disrespectful language.

Ways to report taunting or bullying

The Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. has a crisis hotline number, 812-379-7710, to report incidents of  taunting or bullying.

There are also links on individual school websites about bullying.

Columbus Human Rights Commission

Anyone wishing to contact the Columbus Human Rights Commission may call 812-376-2532 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. To email: humanrights@columbus.ingov.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.