School adds to offensive language policy

School+adds+to+offensive+language+policy

Clara Stevanovic , Staff Writer

This summer, the school amended the Family Handbook’s offensive language policy on dehumanizing expression, adding the sentence: “​​This rule is applicable to languages other than English as well, in addition to symbols and gestures.”

The addition was part of an annual update, Dean of Faculty Dr. Andrew Fippinger said. Although no specific incident prompted the change, adding the statement was necessary because people can express hateful speech through offensive symbols and non-English languages. “The administration wants to make it clear that those non-verbal offenses are just as injurious and unacceptable [as verbal offenses],” Fippinger said.

For many students, the potential for these words emerging in class can be a source of anxiety that impedes their ability to learn,” Fippinger said. He hopes that the revised offensive language statement creates a safe learning environment by reassuring students that offensive language will not be spoken by their peers or teachers in class, he said.

The statement clarifies what hate speech encompasses, even though expectations for personal conduct are the same, Upper Division (UD) Head Dr. Jessica Levenstein said. “[The change will] make sure that everybody knows what the expectations are for a conversation that could include offensive language.” 

In World Language classes, the change will clarify how to address potentially harmful speech when certain words or ideas may not translate directly from one language to another, World Languages Department Chair Pilar Valencia said. “We just have to provide more context and explain how words reference different things across languages,” she said. “Language that is very offensive when spoken in English may have a completely different group of connotations in Spanish or in French.”

Thus, teachers and students must be cautious and examine the context of potentially harmful words on a deeper level as they study languages, Valencia said. “The spirit is the same for every language — every word that harms or makes reference to harming someone is a word that we should not use.”

Elise Kang (11) said that although the change to the policy on dehumanizing expression clarifies expectations about offensive language, enforcing the multilingual policy will be difficult, she said. To make sure that other languages are not used when expressing hateful speech, it is necessary for members of the school community to speak multiple languages. “I don’t know many people that speak more than four languages, so even if the sentence adds clarity, I’m not sure how it will change practices,” Kang said. 

Many teachers chose to include the offensive language policy in their course syllabi this year. While teachers were not required to do this, Fippinger encouraged them to disclose the policy to students in his August email to the UD faculty, he said.

English teacher Jennifer Little included the statement in her course syllabi due to her course material, she said. “For many students, to see a hurtful word on every single page of books like Huckleberry Finn, even though you know that it is being expressed [as a statement about racism], still hurts.”

Little does not use words that have explicitly hurtful meanings in her classes and encourages students to examine the offensive language that they encounter in texts, through both historical and contextual lenses, she said. “The thing that I think can be problematic for Horace Mann students is being afraid to talk about something,” she said. “[The change] is trying to encourage a policy of mutual respect and inquisitiveness, so that we can learn and people don’t have to be afraid to say what they are thinking or what their questions are.”