For more than 10 years, author and restorative justice advocate Dashka Slater has been immersed in issues of hate and racism among young people. From her powerful work detailing an incident between two teens on an Oakland city bus in 2015 (The 57 Bus), to her latest book, Accountable: The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed, Slater poses difficult and essential questions about discrimination, reconciliation, and accountability. Accountable, which is based on a news story that exploded across the country in 2017, takes readers through the timeline of the moment a male student created a racist Instagram account using images of his Black, mostly female classmates, to the trauma it caused his peers, the failed attempts at mediation, and the emotional long-term fallout that occurred. PW spoke with Slater about not only this incident, but the epidemic of similar incidents across our country’s schools and the need for a better approach to seeking restorative justice.
Accountable is an extremely timely work in today’s world of nearly constant social media. What prompted you to write the story of Albany High School?
I was signing books for The 57 Bus and someone in line said, “Have you heard about what’s happening in Albany, California?” When I began looking into the story it resonated with me. I had a teenager at the time whose online life was unknown to me, and I have always been interested in restorative justice, which I heard was the path Albany had decided to use in this case. All of that pulled me in. Furthermore, this incident was being repeated in schools across the country. According to a Southern Poverty Law Project survey, in the fall of 2018 alone there were 3,200 incidents in our schools. Every school is facing these kinds of incidents and they, and their students, don’t have the tools needed to navigate these issues.
The situation at Albany High School eventually reached the court system, raising deeper questions regarding the First Amendment. Where do you believe free speech begins and ends in such a situation?
Really, the question here has to do with when a school has jurisdiction regarding something that is said, or posted, outside of school. This is emerging law, but the courts are beginning to establish that schools do have the right to intervene in places where something online is impacting students during the school day. The other piece of this is free speech and hate speech. Everyone likes to say that hate speech is not free speech, but the Supreme Court has been very clear that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. So, if we can’t use the law to make people stop saying racist things, perhaps the more effective approach is to figure out how to get people to not want to say those things in the first place.
Your book also struggles with some major questions regarding accountability, reconciliation, and healing. Do you believe those things occurred for the students at Albany High School?
Overall, no. I wish that they had. But after talking to these individuals over years, it is clear the wounds are still open. There was a missed opportunity here in moving quickly to deal with the issue. And I want to make it very clear that there is no obligation on the part of those who were harmed to create reconciliation. Any closure that did occur came from those individuals who found their own ways to heal.
One of the book’s triumphs is your ability to create compassion for not just the students victimized by the racist posts, but those who created, posted, and even followed the account. How were you able to do that?
When you talk to someone for hours, and they are sharing their feelings and their vulnerability, it is hard to not feel compassion. My work on this book occurred over four years, and many interviews took place during the Covid lockdown. Many of the students who created or followed these posts were very isolated at the time, and were seeking a connection, which caused them to be very open. It’s very easy for people to take boys at face value as people who don’t share emotions or care, but just underneath that they’re emotionally complicated beings who want connection and love like any other human being. So it’s part of the job of those who work to dismantle systems of oppression to make the space for boys to not be seen as the patriarchal front and instead realize they are more than that, to understand that they are emotional beings and help them surface that.
Accountable: The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed by Dashka Slater. FSG, $20.99 Aug. 22 ISBN 978-0-374-31434-7