SALT LAKE CITY — Incidents of white students targeting black classmates with racial slurs are rising in Utah, according to the local NAACP chapter.
"We've had a number of incidents where white students are using the N-words, they're putting it on media, they're thinking it's funny, they're getting in trouble about it," said Jeanetta Williams, NAACP Salt Lake Branch president, as she and 41 school district superintendents from around the state met to discuss the issue Monday.
The superintendents had an "open dialogue" about how such racism impacts their schools and discussed ideas for combatting it. Representatives from the Department of Justice also attended to discuss race relations and provide some training.
The problem "has just continued to grow" across the Beehive State, Williams said, adding that she has heard reports from students belonging to many school districts.
Terry Shoemaker, executive director of the Utah School Superintendent's Association and a former superintendent for Wasatch School District, said he has heard from Utah superintendents that "to some degree," there have been more incidents of racial comments in the state's schools.
Some of those incidents have occurred on social media and during athletic events, he said.
Williams estimated since 2016, the local NAACP office has received between 12 and 15 calls about racial bullying in schools from students as young as first grade up into high school. In past years, her office heard about two similar complaints annually on average, Williams said.
"These things have always cropped up from time to time … but for some reason this particular year, this last year, there seems to be more of it," Shoemaker explained.
Most recent reports involve students using the racial slur, oftentimes posting it on social media and later apologizing.
"But then they don't look at the consequences before they do it," she said.
Williams explained that the students targeted with racial slurs feel threatened, and it's only getting worse. For example, in one incident of bullying she heard about, a student posted a photo of herself on social media with pizza dough hung around her neck like a "hangman's noose."
"It seems like they're getting more and more threatening with how they're using the N-word," the NAACP branch president explained.
Through meeting with administrators, Williams said she wanted to help schools address the issues by giving them tools to educate students on the topic rather than calling for students to be punished with measures like suspension.
She says she believes the rise in complaints correlates with the 2016 presidential election.
"It just seems like an open door to just do these things and say what they want to, and feel that there's no consequences. And we're here to tell the students that there are consequences and not continue to do that and think it's funny," she explained.
Another issue she thinks might contribute to students using racial slurs is that they hear them in music. The NAACP has tried to combat that problem by asking artists not to use the word, but there are many who will continue to use it in their music, she said.
However, she said she wants students to know that though musicians may use the racial slur, that does not make it OK.
Such behavior tends to get reported to the NAACP and media, not directly to Shoemaker's office or to the State Board of Education, Shoemaker said.
He believes social media has had an impact on the rise in racial slurs, as well as some children hearing racist talk from adults in their lives.
Some school districts have already been taking such measures, he said, and others are now working on formulating action plans. The action plans include talking to kids, parents and teachers about the issue.
He said those involved agreed that it is a problem in their school districts. The brief two-hour meeting was an opportunity to "introduce the subject, talk about the subject."
It just seems like an open door to just do these things and say what they want to, and feel that there's no consequences. And we're here to tell the students that there are consequences and not continue to do that and think it's funny.
–Jeanetta Williams, NAACP Salt Lake Branch president
"This was really the start of a statewide conversation around this particular problem," Shoemaker added.
Lexi Cunningham, Salt Lake School District superintendent, said the conversation was "beneficial for those in attendance."
"As our school districts in Utah become increasingly more diverse, it’s important for us as school leaders to stay ahead of the conversation on these important topics. Listening to each other and learning from each other is so important as we continue to address race relations in our schools," she said.
In Alpine School District, administrators have seen a "slight uptick in bullying," as reported via the SafeUT app, district spokeswoman Kimberly Bird said Monday. While sometimes false reports are made, Bird said the benefit of the app "far outweighs the disadvantages of these incidents."
The district has updated non-discrimination and bullying policies in recent years, in part with guidance from the Utah Legislature, Bird said. And it is revising its discipline policies to correlate with the improved rules.
Bird said that "race and other forms of discrimination continue to plague most schools in America. In Alpine, we continue to do all we can to proactively educate our staff and train them in methods of prevention, early response, and respect."
The district was represented at the Monday conference by its human resources administrator, Bird added.
Contributing: Annie Knox