The fatal shooting of an Oxnard middle-school student who told classmates he was gay serves as a sorrowing and urgent reminder that all kids need a safe school environment, free of threat or harassment. That’s best taught to children through everyday interactions in the classroom and on the playground, by observant teachers, stern principals and strong school leaders. Both a proposed California curriculum on diversity education and a ludicrous decision in Virginia to pull a children’s book depicting two male penguins raising a chick send the schools in the wrong direction.
When a 14-year-old is charged with murdering a classmate, it’s certainly tempting to respond with official action that we’d like to think would prevent such horrors. We applaud Assemblyman Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park) for his good intentions, inspired by the death of Lawrence King. But just as school D.A.R.E. programs have been ineffective at preventing drug abuse, Eng’s proposal for a pilot curriculum on tolerance strikes us as one of those ideas that sound better to adults than to kids. It also lays another Sacramento mandate on teachers who can barely squeeze required history lessons into the school day.
The state already has mandates against harassment of gay students; many schools have anti-bullying programs in place. The most effective practices create a school culture around consideration for others. Teachers notice and reward kind behavior and punish bullying. Student counselors volunteer to mediate. Principals back their teachers by swiftly intervening in disputes and by imposing discipline that opens the eyes of both students and parents.
Standing up for tolerance even when parents are hostile isn’t one of the easier tasks school administrators face. And it’s where a superintendent in Virginia failed miserably.
A parent complained that a book in the elementary schools promoted gay lifestyles. “And Tango Makes Three” is based on the true story of two male penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo that tried to hatch a rock. A zookeeper gave them a fertilized egg, which they did hatch, raising the chick. The book certainly sends a message that two-father families exist, and quite happily. That’s simply the truth, whether or not some people would like to ban gay ornithological unions. Too bad that, even though two committees favored keeping the book, the superintendent pulled it from all elementary shelves in the school district.
It takes common sense and sometimes bravery to nurture tolerance at school. There are teachers, school counselors and even students doing this every day. Leaders would be better off supporting their efforts than putting more requirements on their shoulders or forbidding true stories of acceptance.