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Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund

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Funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program.

Issue/Question:
Someone painted swastikas and wrote "death to the Jews" on the front of our school building. A lot of the teachers wanted to clean it off immediately, but our school principal wouldn't let us. It was so painful to see the kids walk into that school -especially the Jewish kids. What should we do? Is this a hate crime?

Suggested Response:

Defacing a public building with racial threats is a hate crime and must be investigated by local law enforcement authorities. Until the graffiti can be removed permanently, however, it is a good idea to cover the words and symbols with some kind of temporary covering as quickly as possible. Letting such violent, hate-filled threats remain visible on school property can be terrifying for the targeted population. It also sanctions the message and contributes to an atmosphere that tolerates bigotry and could lead to violence.

In addition to identifying and punishing the perpetrator(s) of this hate crime under applicable laws, it is important to address the feelings of the intended targets and of the community as a whole. These can be accomplished in a variety of ways:

  • Send a letter to all families in the community telling them about the incident and outlining the school's response.

  • Invite parents and families to come to the school to talk about issues of racism, prejudice, and diversity as they affect children.

  • Reach out to the families of the children who were targeted by the graffiti, particularly if they are a minority in the school.


This outreach would be most effective if initiated by both a school official and law enforcement authority, as parents of victims will most likely have questions about protection, but will also want to know how the school is handling the situation.

How you help the students who are targeted by graffiti depends on several factors, including their ages, their numbers, and the preferences expressed by both them and their families. Many students would probably prefer not be singled out any further than they already have been. At a minimum, they should be provided with an opportunity to talk with a school counselor or administrator about their feelings following the incident.

This does not mean, however, that there is no discussion about what has happened. Not having honest, open discussions when events like this happen, opens the door to rumors, exaggerations, and blaming. It is important for all students to know that hate-related graffiti harms everyone, not just its intended victims, and that it is a crime. Either in a school assembly, or through visits to individual classrooms, it is important to talk about ways that the school is responding to the incident and to restore a sense of safety.

In addition to talking about what happened, it might be helpful to mobilize the school community to take positive action. Taking such actions will counter the feelings of helplessness and vulnerability that often follow a hate incident. Students and others in the community can join together to clean up graffiti in the school or in other public buildings. Students can create posters or collages that celebrate diversity or that reflect the diverse populations represented in the school and in the community at large for display in the school.
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