Welcoming Schools Guide Teaches Tolerance

One year ago, 15-year-old Lawrence King was shot in the head by a fellow student at a middle school in Oxnard, CA. While the motives of 14-year-old Brandon McInerney were complex, the primary motive was profoundly simple: Lawrence was gay, he often preferred girls' clothing and accessories, and he expressed romantic feelings toward Brandon.

This was not a secret. According to friends, Lawrence readily told schoolmates he was gay and he "stood out" as being different in an adolescent world that doesn't always value differences. For Lawrence, that difference brought constant teasing and harassment by many of his classmates, and ultimately led to his murder.

Although many of us might find it difficult to feel much compassion for Brandon McInerney, the sad reality is that he is also a victim of society's prejudice and intolerance of LGBT people. He absorbed the persistent messages of homophobia, transphobia, fear and hate that swirled around him, and he acted on them.

So, where do we go from here? If we could rewind time, and take action to ensure that life would unfold differently for these two teenagers, we'd see a different environment for them both. We'd find a classroom teacher or hall monitor or maybe a school counselor who might see the early signs of teasing and bullying and offer some interventions. We might even imagine these conversations starting much sooner, perhaps in grade school, where teasing someone for his or her gender non-conforming behavior is confronted gently, but directly.

We might also imagine parents or other adults in those children's lives echoing the sentiment that it's okay to be different, to express yourself differently in your clothes or accessories or even your outlook. These adults, both at home and at school, would celebrate difference, not mock it. And by doing so, lead children to emulate that attitude.

We all know that children can be mean. If they're not calling someone out for their gender variance, they're picking on the kid in the next row for having two moms, or living in foster care, practicing a different religion or faith, or maybe being overweight. It's up to the adults around children to call that early behavior and prejudice out, to explain that differences are actually a plus and can actually be cool. That being different is not something to attack, but to appreciate. If Lawrence King or Brandon McInerney had lived in that world, their lives might not have collided in tragedy and death.

This spring, the HRC Family Project will publish the "Introduction to Welcoming Schools," a guide designed to assist elementary school administrators, educators, school counselors, parents and other members of the school community in creating a learning environment that truly welcomes and supports all students and their families. The Welcoming Schools guide provides the rationale, framework and practical resources to effectively address family diversity, name-calling, and gender stereotyping among elementary students in diverse communities. It engages everyone in the school community to do their part to ensure that students feel safe, included, and can succeed socially and academically.

As educational systems adopt programs like Welcoming Schools, it will impact a generation of kids who'll know it's okay that a 10-year-old boy wants to wear pink, or a classmate has two dads, or a kid is in foster care.

We simply can't afford to lose our children to hate and prejudice. To prevent the tragedy of Lawrence King, we must address the origins of biases that can lead one to harass, hurt and even kill. We must give our children the confidence and security to be who they were meant to be. And we must begin teaching these lessons right away. The Welcoming Schools Guide aims to do just that, and it provides opportunities for all of us -- parents, teachers, and caregivers -- to participate. We honor Lawrence King's memory by recommitting ourselves to stamping out ignorance and prejudice.