Take steps to makeour schools safe

To the editor

   We are writing in response to letters in both the Beacon and the Courier News on the topic of the gay-bashing incident at HHS.
   Rob Sopko of Hillsborough dismissed Courier News treatment of the gay-bashing incident at HHS as "politically correct rhetoric," asserting that the victim’s sexual orientation was irrelevant. While any student-on-student violence is horrifying, violence based on sexual orientation is a bias crime which carries with it deeper meaning and more serious consequences.
   The use of the descriptor "politically correct" in this or any other bias incident dismisses the reality of the oppression and injustice experienced by targeted groups and undermines efforts to end prejudice and discrimination.
   HHS students expressed concern over the image of the school and its students as a result of the media attention that has surrounded the gay-bashing incident. One student claimed that the students who protested outside the school on May 6 were not doing so for human rights. Our family joined the protest and we beg to differ. We were there because HHS principal Douglas Poye suspended Scott Lipich, the victim, for 10 days — longer than three of the four perpetrators — allegedly for walking out of a meeting.
   Reporters on the scene sought interviews with Mr. Poye and Robert Gulick, Hillsborough Superintendent, both of whom declined the opportunity. Although the perpetrators have since been subjected to more severe penalties, the relative severity of the initial suspensions is meaningful.
   By not making violence the most severely punished acts the week of the incident, Mr. Poye implicitly communicated that violence was less problematic than a student not following his orders.
   Dr. Gulick subsequently refused to comment on particulars of Scott’s suspension but was quoted in the Beacon as saying, "[Scott] made a very poor decision in an entirely different matter, and the principal chose to administer the suspension." Our questions — What "matter" could have possibly warranted a more severe penalty being levied on the beating victim than those initially levied on most of the perpetrators? Why didn’t Mr. Poye embrace an opportunity for healing in the school after the incident by hosting a school-wide tolerance forum rather than squashing efforts to create such an opportunity?
   HHS students also pointed out all the "good" at HHS. We have no issue with this independent of the gay-bashing incident. However, the implicit message in many of the student letters and from Dr. Gulick himself is get past this as quickly and quietly as possible. At the May 13 working meeting of the Hillsborough school board, Dr. Gulick described the beating of Scott Lipich, as an "aberration" that occurred in an "exemplary" school with "outstanding" students.
   Some might now see the incident as resolved — one of the perpetrators has been expelled, the other three suspended for the remainder of the school year; all four face criminal charges.
   But hate crimes in school are like violence in the home. Neither are ever isolated aberrations. They are indicator events. Verbal abuse commonly accompanies physical abuse and both are symptoms of a deeper problem.
   Scott Lipich claims that he has been verbally harassed at school for years. HHS teachers and administrators apparently have corroborated Scott’s claim for the Somerset County Prosecutor’s office. Even in exemplary schools with outstanding students, the words "gay," faggot," etc., are commonly used as insults and epithets. This hate speech indicates two things: that (1) people are still afraid of what is different from themselves, and (2) we as a society, as a community, and as individuals tolerate prejudice based on sexual orientation to a far greater extent than we tolerate racial, religious, or ethnic prejudice.
   These deeper problems will not be solved by throwing children out of school or into jail. People cannot be scared out of deep-seated fears.
   So what can we do?
   First we can acknowledge that hate crimes are never isolated aberrations and begin to address their underlying causes. Next we can look at how our own fears and hate play out in our daily lives by asking ourselves — Do I use words describing people different from me as insults and epithets? Do I tolerate in silence other’s use of this kind of speech? Do I treat people who are different from me as if those differences make them less human, immoral, or wrong?
   Next, those of us involved in the education of children including parents, teachers, and school administrators must take an active role in helping the children in our care recognize their own fears and prejudices, how their fears and prejudices play out in their behavior, and how that behavior affects others. This kind of intervention must be systematic and must become embedded in our parenting and teaching. Simple? No. Isolated? No. Necessary in order to make our schools and community safe for all children and adults? Absolutely.

Peter Kindfield, Ph.D.

Ann Kindfield, Ph.D.
Zion Road