Utah school superintendents meet with civil rights group to address a perceived spike in reports of racism, bullying

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake branch of the NAACP.

Utah educators and civil rights leaders have started what they are describing as an “open dialogue” after a perceived uptick in students using racial slurs or bullying classmates based on race.

At the behest of the National Association of the Advancement Colored People, school district administrators and NAACP officials met Monday for the first in what they expect to be multiple discussions on the topic of racial sensitivity in school communities.

“We’re saying that they need to have open dialogue and conversations with these students to let them know that there are consequences when they’re doing all these things and thinking it’s a prank or a joke,” NAACP Salt Lake President Jeanetta Williams said Tuesday.

Williams said she sought the meeting after having nearly weekly conversations with school principals and superintendents around the state regarding separate incidents on their campuses.

Reports to the NAACP from concerned parents have become frequent since the 2016 election, Williams said, often involving students who make social media posts or make ostensibly sarcastic comments that include racial slurs and other offensive rhetoric.

The NAACP chapter isn’t necessarily asking schools to punish students for their off-campus speech, Williams said, but educators need to convey to children the seriousness of racist and offensive conduct.

“We do want young folks to know that there are consequences to their behavior,” Williams said.

In October, a group of Weber High School cheerleaders made national news after recording themselves shouting racial slurs. The video, which produced the offensive language when played in reverse, led to an investigation by school district administrators and the students’ resignations from the cheer squad.

Terry Shoemaker, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association, said roughly 90 people attended the Monday meeting with the NAACP, including representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice.

While there is not hard data on the prevalence of racism and racist speech among Utah’s students, Shoemaker said the interest in Monday’s meeting suggests school leaders throughout the state are concerned.

“It was mostly an introduction rather than a solution meeting,” Shoemaker said. “There was also the desire to get back together form time to time and share successes. How that gets organized and who does that is yet to be determined.”

Shoemaker said it’s unclear whether race-based bullying or the use of racial slurs by students has actually increased. But school administrators have seen a rise in the number of reports of racially-charged incidents, he said, perhaps fueled by the visibility of social media posts and public attention to high-profile cases.

“It is shocking to us that young people continue to have these conversations and social media posts,” Shoemaker said. “That concerns us.”