Community mustchange attitudes

To the editor

   I am the Pastor of the Hillsborough Presbyterian Church. With increasing frequency I have heard reports from my parishioners of incidents of verbal and physical assaults in our schools.
   This past week I was informed by a mother of a student at the high school that on Monday "the gay kid got beat up." The saddest part of that statement is all I know is it was "the gay kid."
   To me he has no name, only a label. And because he remains anonymous I am personally lef untouched by this tragedy and so I am off the hook. It remains someone else’s problem. Though my moral outrage permits me to say with others in our community, "what a horrible thing to have happened!"
   "Who would think such a thing could happen in such a great town as this?" Moral outrage is a good start. At least I know I haven’t become numb to injustice when I see it. Now I want to find someone to blame. "What kind of parents must these kids have that they would do such a horrible thing?"
   "Where were the teachers?" "Why doesn’t the school do something about the bullies who stalk school hallways?" On some level blaming helps us to try and make some sense out of the senselessness of it all. It helps allay our deep fear that the world is spinning out of control and we will be lost in all the chaos. And so we look for an answer; any answer that will make sense.
   We say youth violence is the result of the breakdown in the family or the failure of our religious and social institutions. Or we say youth violence is the result of too much violence on television, in the movies, in video games or on the Internet. Or we say it’s a result of the overall moral decay of our society.
   The problem is we end up pointing fingers and changing nothing. The mere fact that there are so many possible scapegoats for the problem of youth violence reflects the very nature of the problem. We live in a world that has become so fragmented that we have lost all sense of communal responsibility. Wherever hatred and intolerance are allowed to fester and spread in a community, violence is bound to erupt. There is no easy answer to the problem of hate and intolerance and the violence it spawns in our world.
   There is no "they" or "them" who should do something, there is only "me" and "us." We are all responsible for building a community grounded in love and respect of neighbor.
   One thing we must not do is to remain silent. In the face of injustice silence is consent. "The gay kid who got beat up" is but one of many nameless children and youth who are ostracized, harassed, and bullied on a daily basis. Nameless and faceless kids who long to belong but are told every day that they don’t. We all remember high school and we know that some things haven’t really changed at all.
   We can remember the odd kid who took the brunt of our teasing. We can to this day probably rattle off the names of the star athletes, the really smart kids and the really popular kids. The names and the labels have changed somewhat, "nerds" have become "geeks," but the cliques are the same. And so we might be tempted to say this is an age-old problem of adolescence.
   But it’s not. In today’s culture where verbal taunting and teasing so quickly and so easily escalates into violence the stakes are so much higher. Just look at the number of school shootings we’ve witnessed in the past few years. Or the fact that the suicide rate among gay and lesbian teenagers is up to 40 percent. The stakes are high.
   And as a person entrusted with the care of souls, I know the damage caused to a child’s soul by malicious taunting is more brutal and takes even longer to heal than the bruises caused by any physical beating.
   As parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, religious leaders, youth workers, and concerned citizens, there are no scapegoats; teaching and modeling tolerance is our communal responsibility. As a member of the clergy and as a citizen of Hillsborough, I hope all of us will strive together to make our schools known not just for their academic and athletic excellence but for the tolerance and respect shown among the students.

The Rev. Nancy A. Conklin
Hillsborough Presbyterian Church