For Jadyn Lontoc, a high school senior in Southern California, the Atlanta-area spa shootings in March was the breaking point after months of escalating violence against Asian Americans.
“It’s really infuriating to just sit here in the comfort of my home watching all this happen and feeling like I’m not doing anything to help in any way,” Lontoc, 17, told NBC Asian America. "Seeing all the headlines stacking on top of each other of people who look like me, my family, my grandparents — it was a very scary and very angry time for me.”
So she channeled her frustration into activism. In the spring, she applied for the high school internship program at Stop AAPI Hate, a national nonprofit organization that collects and analyzes hate incidents against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Along with 100 student interns, she conducted research on the extent and impact of anti-Asian racism on youths, and found that more than 70 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander students across the country experienced racism in the past year.
Now, as a new academic year begins, many K-12 students and community organizations are pushing schools to take a more proactive approach to address incidents of racism on campus.
The Stop AAPI Hate Youth Campaign interns, whose forthcoming report pulls from interviews with more than 1,100 youths across the country, also found that cyberbullying comprises three-quarters of all incidents reported. Verbal harassment and name-calling constitutes a third.
“A lot of people we interviewed experienced racism on TikTok and Instagram,” Lontoc said. “I’ve seen a lot of racist jokes and comments about people’s dietary habits.”
Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, said the surge in cyberbullying is a more recent development.
“Since students were in school virtually last year, the rates of direct racism might be tamped down,” he said. “But they’re spending a lot of time on screen, where they experience vicarious racism.”
At the same time, Jeung said, clips of violent attacks against Asian elders and coverage of the Atlanta shootings have galvanized many young people, like Lontoc, into action. Twice as many students, he said, applied to the internship program this year compared to last year.
Research and advocacy work from youth activists and community groups have yielded considerable progress in recent months. In July, after months of campaigning from the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago, Illinois became the first state to require public schools to teach a unit of Asian American history. In a broader measure, Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., introduced legislation to incorporate Asian American studies in public school curriculum nationwide.
The nonprofit Act to Change enlisted "Queer Eye" star Tan France, who’s of Pakistani descent, to lead interactive workshops at a handful of high schools, with the goal of teaching students to become active anti-bullying advocates on campus.
According to a survey the group conducted in May, 80 percent of more than 300 AAPI youths said they experienced bullying either in-person or online.
The result “is certainly disheartening because we’ve been doing so much work,” Act to Change chair and co-founder Maulik Pancholy said. “But we know the xenophobia and racism we saw in the past couple of years have been devastating for our communities.”
The group is also working on providing teachers with culturally sensitive resources to address anti-Asian racism. Less than 40 percent of students who reported being bullied said they told an adult about it. Most didn’t feel that doing so would make a difference.
“Teachers are often the point of safety for students in the classroom,” Pancholy said. “For a teacher to recognize how bullying presents itself, how bullying around cultural contexts might take place, is going to be important in eradicating bullying in the classroom.”
The need for stronger intervention from educators is echoed by the findings from the Stop AAPI Youth Campaign. About 81 percent of AAPI students who experienced bullying say they have some form of mental health services at school, but less than a quarter said they were satisfied with the available treatment, and only 15 percent report actually using them.
Sumie Okazaki, a professor of counseling psychology program at New York University, said schools should provide more implicit bias and cultural sensitivity training for teachers and counselors so they can be better equipped to address the concerns of nonwhite students, and recognize the hurt that jokes or microaggressions can cause.
“What we know from science is that even if [a comment] is not consciously registered as a racist remark, it still eats at you,” she said. “It can still trigger a physiological response.”
Seeking help, she continued, can be especially hard for immigrant children whose parents don’t want them “to air out psychological issues to people who aren’t their family.” Such cultural barriers, she said, “put the onus on schools to normalize talking about mental health issues.”
Last fall, the Anti-Defamation League created an anti-bias lesson plan for K-12 educators, called “Coronavirus and Infectious Racism.” To date, the group has implemented the program at more than 1,600 schools nationwide.
Annie Ortega Long, the education director for the organization’s western division, said a big challenge facing anti-bias education is the right’s cultural war on critical race theory and resulting legislation that restricts discussions centered on race.
“We see school boards across the West grapple with how to communicate with parents who are concerned about how students are being taught about controversial issues,” she said, noting that there’s widespread misinformation about what constitutes anti-bias training.
For the youth activists of Stop AAPI Hate, Jeung said, the goal for the fall is to mobilize local communities to implement ethnic studies requirements, lead workshops at conferences such as the Changemakers Summit in October, and generate awareness about their findings on social media. “There’s still a lot of progress to be made,” he said.
Some student interns have been working directly with leaders in their school district to bring about policy changes.
Earlier this year, Megan Chan, a senior in the Greater Los Angeles area, participated in a virtual roundtable hosted by the California Education Department and Tony Thurmond, the California state superintendent of public instruction.
She and her peers shared a slew of recommendations for local schools: train a diverse staff who can understand the needs of nonwhite students, provide culturally competent mental health services, establish affinity groups and develop a structured ethnic studies course so that students can avoid repeating mistakes from history and develop critical thinking skills.
“For once, the youth got to speak while the adults got to listen,” Chan said. “This was the first time I truly felt and understood what it meant to be empowered.”