How to Fight Against Discrimination in High School

As a counselor, it’s your responsibility to help each student succeed, whether that means helping them gain confidence and social skills, giving them tips for getting into college, or reporting the possibility of neglect to the appropriate authorities. Each student needs something different, and you have to be able to meet them where they are.

For some students, discrimination is a major issue that affects their ability to focus, feel safe, and excel. Discrimination isn’t just a workplace issue. It’s a problem at every level of society, including our schools. High school counselors can and must help to fight discrimination at their schools to promote great outcomes and well-being among the student body.

How Discrimination Affects the School Environment.

Discrimination takes many forms and might be directed at students and staff due to their race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or other factors. When discrimination occurs in high school, it impacts both students and teachers.

Students who experience discrimination may have their mental health and well-being impacted. Or, they might have fewer opportunities to succeed and less support from teachers and staff. Ultimately, this can contribute to some students skipping school, dropping out, or developing severe mental health problems.

Teachers who face discrimination cannot fully focus on their critically important jobs. They have to deal with the stress of a hostile work environment and worry about the impact such an environment has on their students. A toxic school environment that tolerates discrimination isn’t healthy for anyone — students, teachers, staff, and families.

Understand the Current Problems and Culture

If you’re noticing discrimination in your high school, then the first step is to get a solid grasp of the problem. What incidents have been occurring, and how are they affecting the well-being of students?

Putting these incidents into a broader cultural context can help you understand where the issue has its roots. If you live in a progressive, liberal area and have mostly white students, your school might be dealing with racism toward students and teachers of color. If you’re in a more rural area, homophobia might be an issue to tackle. In some cases, it’s teachers and staff, not students, who are the source of discrimination.

You shouldn’t be doing this work alone. The leadership at your school should be involved in creating inclusive policies and a culture that will help everyone feel safe on campus. It’s painful to confront hateful actions and words in your own school. But if you don’t know what’s going on, implementing fixes isn’t likely to be successful.

Review and Question School Policies

Another critical step in tackling discrimination at your school is to review the existing policies on discrimination, bullying, and harassment and lobby for updates if needed. These policies should be updated regularly but frequently are not, and often do not meet current guidelines and expectations from the state and district.

Policies should not only make it clear what isn’t acceptable, but they should also state the consequences of those unacceptable activities. Today’s policies also need to address issues like technology use and cyberbullying, especially since school-related activities often take place virtually.

Students and parents need transparency when it comes to these policies. They should sign agreements to ensure that no one is unaware of the policies and consequences. The policies should be easily accessible to anyone who wishes to review them.

Be Open and Willing to Get Uncomfortable

When you’re working with students, incidents of discrimination might come up. It’s uncomfortable to talk about these things, and it can feel easier in the moment to focus on the positive or brush them off. But when a trusted adult can’t confront a student’s experiences, it can make them feel like they don’t have anyone to support them.

You need to be open and willing to get uncomfortable. It’s important to really confront discrimination at your school and to talk about it, with students who are experiencing it and the people who are in the position to enact change. Speaking up can be hard (and if you’re nervous, consider working on your public speaking skills!) but it’s absolutely critical for students’ well-being.

Create a Safe, Supportive Environment for Students

At the end of the day, school counselors need to be involved in fighting discrimination at work because it has a long and hateful legacy of pain and hate. It continues to affect students’ lives and it’s not fair to pretend that it isn’t happening at high schools across the United States.

By working to create a safe and supportive environment for the students at your school, you can help them achieve their goals. If they are able to feel safe, confident, and included at school, they are much more likely to excel, both academically and personally. The teen years are very influential in shaping a young person’s trajectory, and no one should have to deal with the emotional pain of discrimination.