Two years ago, Nora Flanagan’s fifth grade son told her he’d found Nazi graffiti on the bathroom walls at his school. When she asked him if she should tell the principal, he said no.
“So we worked out a deal,” said Flanagan, an English teacher at Northside College Preparatory High School in Chicago’s North Park neighborhood. “I taught him how to remove Sharpie with an alcohol pad, and he would go in there every day and clean swastikas off the wall with an alcohol wipe.”
Flanagan said she regrets not reporting the incident to administrators at her son’s elementary school. That’s because 30 years ago, Flanagan saw a neo-Nazi youth movement take root in her childhood neighborhood of Beverly, on Chicago’s Southwest Side. She said she believes inaction by adults was partly to blame.
“There were a lot of people in Beverly that didn’t think it was a big deal, or weren’t that bothered by it or passively condoned it,” said Flanagan. “And I now know that that was when there was a considerable concerted effort to recruit and mobilize white nationalists around the Midwest.”
Flanagan said she believes she’s seeing the resurgence of a similar effort by hate groups to recruit students online and she worries that school communities are unprepared. So Flanagan co-authored a toolkit to help educators, students, parents and other school stakeholders recognize and fight white nationalism in student settings. The thin booklet, titled Confronting White Nationalism in Schools: A Toolkit, was published early this year by a progressive nonprofit in Oregon called the Western States Center.
“It’s for every stakeholder in a school community,” said Flanagan. “So if a student encounters a flyer taped up in the bathroom, here’s what she can do. If a teacher hears about something from one of her students, here’s what she can do … on up through a parent finding something or hearing something from their kid.”
The toolkit describes several categories of incidents, from anonymous use of hate symbols or speech — such as the swastikas that Flanagan’s son encountered in a school bathroom — to students organizing white nationalist activity inside or outside school. Every category contains recommended actions for each type of stakeholder, as well as pointers on what not to do. Flanagan said it’s critical to engage the whole school community.
“It can’t just be something that gets kicked up to the school administration to handle and then be done with,” said Flanagan.
Already, the Western States Center has distributed copies of the toolkit — 1,400, in all — to nearly every state in the U.S., and to eight countries.
“We had actually been thinking of producing something like this ourselves, and then we heard about this one being in development,” said Maureen Costello, director of the Teaching Tolerance project at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “We have gotten requests from educators asking specifically for, ‘What do I need to know, and what can I do?’”
The SPLC has been tracking news stories of incidents against Jews, African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, and LGBTQ people in student settings since 2017. The anti-hate organization has also surveyed teachers about how President Donald Trump’s public comments about immigrants and some foreign nations have affected schools. Costello said the results show that incidents are on the rise, and that adults often fail to adequately respond or even to recognize the activities of white power extremists.
“They don’t know what the hand signs look like,” she said. “The white nationalist movement is filled with memes and characters and symbols and language that are kind of always developing.”
The toolkit acquaints readers with the iconography of white power movements, as well as with defenses that white nationalists often invoke for their beliefs. For example, “it’s about pride, not prejudice” is one common refrain of the white power movement. The toolkit offers that equating “white pride” with LGBTQ pride or Latinx pride is a false equivalence because, historically, the latter groups have been victims of discrimination, oppression and violence.
“Everywhere I go, I have teachers, I have parents come up to me and say that something happened in their school [or] that there was an incident in the town just over from where I spoke,” said Christian Picciolini, author of White American Youth and a former violent extremist.
Picciolini was a key player in recruiting youth to the neo-Nazi movement in Beverly in the late 1980s. At 17 years old, his adherence to the ideology had progressed so far that he was stockpiling firearms and ammunition to prepare for an eventual violent white uprising. Picciolini has long since left the movement and now helps white nationalists disengage from it. He said the toolkit that Flanagan and her co-authors developed is filling a critical void.
“Probably the number one question I have when I travel around the country is ‘Is there anything you can leave us? Is there any kind of a toolkit or a cheat sheet or any sort of a guide that can instruct us on what to look for or what to do?’” said Picciolini. “And I think that they really nailed it. They put together an amazing product and I think it’s going to be very educational for people to use.”
Flanagan is now exploring how the toolkit may be repurposed for use by other adults who work with youth, including librarians.
Odette Yousef is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.
Correction: Northside College Preparatory High School in Chicago’s North Park neighborhood.