Preventing hate crime starts in schools

Last Wednesday, President Barack Obama signed a law that will add violent acts against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals to the list of federal hate crimes. This law, the first major piece of federal legislation for gay rights, has us wondering why acts of violence against the LGBT community were not considered hate crimes before. Violence against any person, regardless of sexual orientation, out of hate defines the term “hate crime.” But more importantly, this new law emphasizes the horrific and numerous acts of violence that happen yearly against the LGBT community nationwide and unfortunately, even here in Champaign-Urbana.

Each decade, America becomes more diverse, and unfortunately, as our communities grow, the number of hate crimes also increases. In June, Attorney General Eric Holder said recent violence shows the need to have tougher laws for hate crimes. So what can we do to off-set violent acts against the LGBT community, as well as hate crimes in general? The country doesn’t have to look far for inspiration.

The C-U community took initiative Monday night about bullying, harassing and assault — acts that can often be prevented. They held a Safe Schools forum, looking at bullying of gay students in schools and how teachers and administrators could respond.

While students have the ultimate power to end violence and bullying, teachers and administrators often witness hatred in the classroom, lunchroom or hallways. Given the proper instruction on what to look for, and how to respond, teachers could change the game of bullying.

Unfortunately, those individuals at the forum did not include our own instructors. As college students, we spend around one to two hours in each class and generally, our professors don’t get a chance to recognize students let alone witness and rectify bullying between students. Elementary, middle and high schools are a different story.

When students spend five days a week in a classroom with the same teacher, students and faculty get the opportunity to know one another and form a relationship. And while that opportunity is available, students’ lives are often affected by what they’re taught in their classrooms. Among their regular core classroom curriculum, if students are taught that hate crimes are unacceptable, if they are taught to embrace diversity and practice equality, then maybe the hate crimes and violence that occur after high school would become less frequent. Faculty in elementary and secondary education can prevent bullying and hate crimes from the get-go by teaching students otherwise. They can also offer a safe environment that fosters acceptance and does not tolerate harassment of anybody.

When professors witness bullying, it may be too late to change people’s opinions. At that point, it’s not about prevention, but about controlling the situation.

Students should feel safe, and teachers should spend the time learning to create that type of environment for all students. And if students learn, repeatedly, during their earlier years of education that hate crimes are intolerable, they will be more likely to practice that same attitude after high school.