(WXYZ) — There's a push to battle bigotry and repeated instances of racism in schools after a rash of incidents across Southeast Michigan. The hate and discrimination has prompted town halls and experts being brought in to raise awareness.
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From parents to civil rights activists to college researchers, everyone agrees education must be a key part of a solution to stopping racism at the public school level.
"Kids literally told him go back to your country, they called him a Muslim terrorist. He was in shock, he didn’t know why it was happening to him. He didn’t want to go to school anymore," said Wassim Mahfouz, executive director of the LAHC.
As a parent, Wassim Mahfouz recalls the pain of hearing about his son becoming a target of racism after moving to a new school district.
At the time, his son was a 6th grader dealing with bigoted comments and hate-filled notes being passed to him.
"The note literally reads, 'we hate you and your name.' Discrimination and racism and bullying go hand in hand,” said Mahfouz.
His son’s experience and others like it sadly haven’t stopped. In fact, some feel it’s gotten worse.
A recent walkout at Bloomfield Hills High School came after numerous complaints from students.
“I’ve been called the 'n' word a couple times,” said one student.
“I don’t understand what the death threats are,” said another student.
"Whenever I say 'don’t do that,' I’m all of a sudden the aggressive Black person," said yet another student.
The alarming trend has also included incidents in South Lyon, Farmington Hills and Sanilac County. Community activist pastor Maurice Hardwick doesn’t only blame what some kids hear at home, but also the internet & social media.
"From social media, and from music and the things they see, they think it’s just something to play with or cool. They don’t understand the deep rooted history of pain and hatred,” said Hardwick.
Hatred and discrimination have been closely studied by academic experts, like Michigan State University professor Dr. Emilie Smith.
"From my own research, I know children learn about racial stereotypes as young as grades 2 and 3. It’s not that at adolescence suddenly they perceive race. They start to see color but it’s the social meaning that we attach to it," said Dr. Smith.
Dr. Smith highlights the critical importance of not just being taught to respect differences, but the responsibility of school leaders to re-enforce the value of diversity.
"The schools that do it well start off, they have posters, they have visualizations that show everyone is welcome here in terms of diversity. They also make it clear that it’s something they won’t tolerate," said Dr. Smith.
For Mahfouz, the experience is part of a mission that extends beyond parenting. As the executive director of Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities, he’s working to save lives threatened by racism.
"Some kids commit suicide because they feel they don’t belong, they feel unappreciated and they feel hated for no reason. We started a program 12 years ago called Youth Leadership and Diversity Education. We bring youth from different cultural backgrounds, different ethnicities, races and we teach them diversity education, college preparation, community service, how to work together," he said.
Experts also add it’s important to continue studying disturbing trends that simply aren’t limited to one community.