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Preventing and Responding to Campus Hate and Bias Incidents

Christine McHugh, Esq.
February 2022
Implementing steps for preventing and responding to campus hate and bias incidents helps build and protect your campus community.

Many K-12 schools, colleges, and universities work hard to create a culture that doesn’t tolerate hate and bias. At this time of significant polarization across the country, incorporating hate and bias prevention efforts into your campus ethos can advance a safer, more welcoming environment for your school’s community.

Unfortunately, sometimes damaging hate and bias incidents happen despite best prevention efforts, so it is important to have carefully formulated response practices in place. This preparation can help your campus community mitigate damage and support injured parties if an incident does occur.

Bias Incident or Hate Crime?

Bias incidents are motivated by prejudice against another person’s actual or perceived identity or group membership, and can be verbal, physical, written, or via electronic means such as social media or text messages.

Bias incidents don’t necessarily involve criminal activity, as they may not reach the level of criminal conduct or may be protected by the First Amendment or other laws. However, they may still violate your campus policies.

All hate crimes are bias incidents, but certain bias incidents aren’t necessarily hate crimes.

A hate crime is:

  • A criminal offense committed against a person(s) or property
  • Motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias toward the actual or perceived characteristics of a victim’s identity or the victim’s group membership(s)
  • Regardless of whether the belief or perception is correct

The prejudice often relates to race, color, national origin, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and/or disability, though it can vary depending on how state, local, and tribal laws define the crime. For example, many states exclude sexual orientation or gender identity from their hate crime laws. Other state, local, or tribal laws include protected categories such as people without housing or members of the police or military.

Take Steps to Prevent Hate Crimes and Bias Incidents

  • Use a policy to formalize your institution’s prohibition of hate crimes and bias incidents. Spell out your definition of hate crimes and bias incidents, detail who the policies cover (students, employees, or both), and clarify which behaviors are prohibited, even if they aren’t necessarily illegal in your jurisdiction. Provide specific examples of prohibited actions and reference your institution’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.
  • Educate your campus constituencies. Education shouldn’t only be about prohibitions, but also should include the societal and community harm caused by bias and hate. Raising awareness among students and staff allows them to positively influence peers. Empower your students to become advocates for bias and hate crime prevention on campus, for example through the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate® program or other training programs for student advocates.

    Teach students and staff about proactive steps to prevent acts of hate and bias, including identifying prejudicial attitudes and actions and learning about implicit bias. Provide guidance on how to speak up and seek help when hearing comments or jokes rooted in stereotypes, prejudice, or hate. Incorporate your school’s efforts to combat bias and hate into all aspects of campus administration, such as communications, events, academics, and student life, to create a campus culture of awareness and respect.
  • Provide training. Train employees to identify bias incidents and hate crimes, how to interrupt or report the incident, and how to support victims and direct them to campus resources. Some schools find that requiring employees to report all bias or hate incidents and crimes they witness can help build a culture of accountability and tolerance. Creating a reporting obligation often removes any subjective decision-making about what to do when witnessing an incident.
  • Make reporting easy and accessible for employees and students. If possible, provide multiple options for reporting, including anonymous and 24-hour options. Consider providing separate channels for employees, since human resources must be involved. Make at least one reporting option a non-police outlet, since distrust of law enforcement sometimes deters reporting. When different departments handle reports (such as employee reports handled by human resources, or certain crimes handled by campus police), ensure there is communication between them so they identify trends, problem areas, and repeat offenders. Finally, publicize reporting options online and by paper copy on campus, especially areas where students gather, such as student, religious, and cultural centers, counseling and disability services, and diversity and public safety offices.

Respond to Campus Incidents

Your school should respond to all reports of bias or hate. A quick and thorough response by the administration can help:

  • Prevent escalation of the incident.
  • Get survivors support and protection quickly.
  • Deter additional incidents or crimes from the original offender or from others who may follow their lead.
  • Create and maintain a diverse, inclusive culture.
  • Uphold your institution’s mission and commitment to its community.

Consider Establishing a Bias Incident Response Team

Specially trained administrators on a Bias Incident Response Team coordinate the institutional response to reports. Teams often include members from departments across campus, ranging from the President’s office to the multicultural office to campus law enforcement, to allow coordination and wide-ranging campus input. The team will ensure initial reports receive a prompt response, including outreach to the victim and bringing in other campus resources (such as public safety) as needed. They also begin the investigation process, whether that is done within the team or through another campus designee. The team should track the investigation and discipline outcomes to analyze them for trends and determine whether additional campus efforts may be necessary.

Develop a Process to Inform Your Campus About Incidents

Silence by your administration may be interpreted as complicity or acceptance of actions. When appropriate, use your campus communication channels to strongly condemn the behavior and to provide details of the event to the extent possible, bearing any confidentiality obligations in mind.

If free speech implications are at play, the communication can address those freedoms while emphasizing the relevant policies or expectations for community conduct and campus culture. Remind students of reporting options and support resources.

Depending on the incident’s nature and severity, consider offering campus meetings for students and staff as an outlet to express opinions and questions. Consider posting yearly tallies or summaries of bias incident reports each year in a visible location, for example on the webpage that includes your reporting options and policies.

Create a Relationship with Law Enforcement

Partner with law enforcement, both on campus and in the surrounding community, to ensure notification to your school when they respond to or receive reports of hate crimes or bias incidents involving students or employees. Create clear communication channels for this notification and memorialize them in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the parties. Include detailed contact information for the administrator(s) police should contact to relay initial reports and follow-up communications.

Ensure your campus police officers (and local law enforcement with the school within their jurisdiction) are trained in responding to and investigating hate crimes. Designate one or more civil rights officers within your campus police department so they can serve as the primary liaison between campus administration, advocacy groups, and external law enforcement agencies. This role signals that the effort against hate crimes is a campus priority.

Offer Comprehensive Victim Support

Bias and hate incidents still may occur despite your best prevention and intervention efforts. Providing support and resources for victims is an essential part of your response and caring for the campus community.

Your institution’s initial response protocols should prioritize outreach to victims to assure their safety and offer support. Give victims full control over what supportive resources they may want or need. Resources can be offered through the counseling center, religious or cultural centers, student services, or campus safety.

Avoid requiring victims to participate in disciplinary procedures or restorative justice; any such participation should be voluntary and with ongoing support.

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Online Course: Show Some Respect! Prevent Harassment

Additional Resources

Department of Justice: Hate Crimes on Campus