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Teachers Struggle With How To Address Domestic Terrorism, Radicalization Of Students


The federal government says domestic terrorism is a top national security threat, and it's on the rise. So what happens when extremist views come up in schools? For the Embedded podcast, Kelly McEvers reports on how teachers are coping with an increase in white nationalist incidents. And just a warning - this story contains reporting on racist and bigoted language and ideas.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Derek Weimer taught high school in Kentucky, in a suburb just outside Cincinnati, Ohio. A few years ago, he was teaching a world history class, and one of his students, who was white, would talk about how much he liked Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.

DEREK WEIMER: He believed that, you know, the white race was the most dominant, most powerful race.

MCEVERS: Derek, who is also white, thought it's a free country. The student can believe what he wants, so I will try to change his mind with facts. He told the student how Nazis sent children to fight and what Allied soldiers found when they liberated the death camps. But still, the student didn't change his mind. The student told Derek he believed what he read on white nationalist websites like Stormfront.

WEIMER: I remember saying that's just garbage. That's Nazi garbage. I approached it as a teacher would approach it. I - my weapon was logic. My weapon was compassion. My weapon was morality, right and wrong.

MCEVERS: The student eventually graduated. And one day, a few years later, Derek got a message on Facebook from another former student.

WEIMER: He was like, hey - he was like, follow this link, and you won't believe who's involved. And sure enough, I mean, there it was.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Let's get right to our breaking news out of Charlottesville, Va., where the governor...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: White nationalists joined by the KKK, neo-Nazis...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: At least one person is dead. More than two dozen others hurt after a car slammed into a group of demonstrators.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio was charged with second-degree murder along with...

MCEVERS: James Fields, who killed Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, was Derek's former student, the neo-Nazi.

WEIMER: I was shocked. And I got kind of a sick feeling in my stomach.

MCEVERS: Derek says he has no idea if he could've stopped James Fields from committing violence. But knowing what he knows now, he says he wishes he'd done more.

WEIMER: I'd have been more aggressive in making sure it was properly reported. I'd report it to the administration. I'd report it to the guidance counselors. And I would also mention it to the school resource officer.

MCEVERS: While a lot of teachers like Derek might not know that these hateful ideas can lead to violence, other teachers are working hard to spread the word.

NORA FLANAGAN: My name is Nora Flanagan. I am an English teacher in the Chicago Public Schools.

MCEVERS: One day, several years back, Nora Flanagan saw a white student with a patch on his jacket; a patch she recognized was a logo for a movement called White Pride Worldwide, basically a square cross inside a circle.

FLANAGAN: I stopped him and struck up a conversation and asked him, you know, what was going on with his new look. And he seemed really excited that I had asked. And he sprung back with there's nothing wrong with pride in being white.

MCEVERS: And what did you say?

FLANAGAN: I remember at the time feeling really stressed and scrambled to respond in a way that kept him engaged in conversation, didn't shut it down. But I also wanted to make clear to him that I knew what that patch meant.

MCEVERS: She didn't want to shut him down, she says, because she knew that could push him further toward the movement by reinforcing the white nationalist narrative that white people are oppressed.

FLANAGAN: Over the years, white nationalist groups have provided instructions for young people to bring their ideology into school. I had to run on the assumption that this student was ready for anything I might say and might even be looking to escalate the conversation, so my goal was to stay calm because overreacting is just as counterproductive as underreacting.

MCEVERS: Nora went to the discipline office of her school. She says the white dean she reported it to seemed confused and unfamiliar with the issue.

FLANAGAN: Especially in the early 2000s, if a kid didn't have a giant swastika on his back, then I needed to do some convincing.

MCEVERS: The dean asked for more information, so Nora went online and found the student's patch in the Anti-Defamation League's glossary of hate symbols.

FLANAGAN: And brought it to them with the symbol circled.

MCEVERS: She told the administrators, we need to do something now.

FLANAGAN: The administration finally concluded that it was worth searching his locker, where they found a stack of printed recruitment flyers for the National Alliance, which at the time, was still a prominent hate group in this country. And they also found sketches in his notebooks of people hanging from trees.

MCEVERS: Black people, specifically - Nora says she doesn't know if the student was planning to commit violence, but what they found in that locker made it feel very possible.

FLANAGAN: I felt terrified. I felt heartbroken that a kid was this far down a really hateful path, but I also felt immensely relieved that we knew what we knew before anything terrible had happened.

MCEVERS: The school connected the student with counseling and talked to his parents. And eventually, Nora says, he disengaged from the white nationalist movement.

FLANAGAN: And I think that part of the reason that he turned out all right was that we didn't underreact. We didn't overreact. And we remembered that as terrifying as the situation felt, we did still have, you know, a student, a human child at the center of it.

MCEVERS: These days, Nora says it's even harder to know when a student is interested in white nationalism when a lot of this stuff happens online, and the ideas are presented as memes and jokes. She says students are using white nationalist avatars in school materials, posting white nationalist quotes on social media, using white nationalist talking points in research papers. Nora and some other teachers she knew recently wondered, where's the handbook on how to deal with all this stuff?

FLANAGAN: These incidents were happening at my own school, at friends' and former colleagues' schools, but nobody had a set way to respond.

MCEVERS: So she and two other teachers decided to write the handbook. It's actually called "The Toolkit For Confronting White Nationalism In Schools" - a 50-page guide with specific examples of extremist incidents and how to respond to them. And their advice to students is to document incidents when they happen and report them to at least two adults. And to schools, to offer a private way for students and staff to report these incidents and make it clear in public that hate is not acceptable ever. The problem, Nora says, is that for schools and parents, it's still difficult to get them to take this stuff seriously. She says she often hears stuff like, this is just political correctness, or, racism is over, or, what about free speech? And here's how she says schools should respond.

FLANAGAN: All ideologies are not equal. They do not deserve equal airtime, and they do not deserve equal protection. I believe in free speech. I love free speech. However, speech that threatens violence, speech that advocates expulsion or extermination of groups of people is not protected in our school communities because it endangers our school communities.

MCEVERS: Nora says, sadly, the more extremist attacks that happen around the country, the more likely it is parents and school administrators will take this stuff seriously.

FLANAGAN: These conversations about the dangers of white nationalist ideology, unfortunately, become easier with every mass shooting committed by a white nationalist.

MCEVERS: "The Toolkit For Confronting White Nationalism In Schools" has been presented at dozens of conferences and at least 10 schools and has been distributed to thousands of people.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

CHANG: You can download the tool kit at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.