Brexit hate crime in schools: shocking truth or over-hyped?
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Media headlines report that racist hate crimes have almost doubled in schools and wider society since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. A recent report by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) (now part of the new National Education Union) found that more than a fifth of teachers were aware of incidents of hate crime or speech happening in their schools in the past academic year. Misogynist and racist language is ‘being normalised as our little sponges are absorbing and regurgitating it’ said a delegate speaking at the National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference last year. The TES recently reported that in May last year – in the middle of the Brexit referendum campaign – the number of police reports of hate crimes and hate incidents in schools rose by 89 per cent, compared with the same month in 2015 and that the number of hate crimes and hate incidents in schools increased by 54 per cent from May to July last year – covering the run-up to the referendum and the immediate aftermath – compared with the same three-month period in 2015. While these figures have been disputed, there is certainly a sense that race-related hate crime incidents are on the rise and are somehow linked to Brexit.
While there is little doubt that hate crime incidents happen, are things as straightforward as is claimed? The tragic incident in August last year, when a 15-year-old boy landed a fatal blow on Arek Jozwik, a Polish man living in Harlow in Essex, led to a Guardian headline that claimed the killing ‘exposes the reality of post-referendum racism’, while the Telegraph reported ‘fears [that] migrants are being targeted in post-Brexit hate crimes’. But the recent court case revealed that Mr Jozwik’s killing was neither murder nor racist, but accidental. When in December last year it was announced that the Crown Prosecution Service wasn’t treating the death as a hate crime, there were no headlines correcting the original accusations.
Some commentators are also sceptical about the claims of a huge spike in hate in schools, suggesting the reporting of the figures is misleading, even accusing the media and educational organisations of spinning the evidence for political gain. Others contend that even if the term hate crime is over-hyped, there is informal evidence of pupils empowered to dish out anti-foreigner sentiment, and conversely a rise in fear amongst children from EU countries that they aren’t welcome. Robert Posner, chief executive of the Anne Frank Trust UK, said the charity had heard more ‘disparaging’ comments about refugees during school workshops since the Brexit vote in June, claiming: ‘Language that we might consider to be either racist or prejudiced has become more normal and more accepted recently.’ In response, others note that such anecdotal ‘evidence’ is too subjective and can fuel scaremongering about the reality of attitudes in the classroom.
What constitutes a hate crime and who gets to define such a concept? One racist incident is one too many, but what are we to make of the current claims around widespread hate in classrooms – a shocking truth or a moral panic? Does the truth lie somewhere in between these two polarised positions?
author, That’s Racist! How the regulation of speech and thought divides us all and Leave those kids alone – How official hate speech regulation interferes in school life
founding director, ConnectFutures
chief executive, The Anne Frank Trust UK
Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert
educator, writer & researcher; co-author, What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth