A number of federal and state laws define particular acts as hate or bias crimes and incidents as a means of protecting select victim groups. General definitions agree that such actions are motivated in whole or in part by the perpetrator’s hatred or bias toward the victim’s perceived group affiliation. Groups that are recognized under federal law for protection include those targeted for violence on account of race, religion, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. Some states include other victim categories targeted because of physical disability, skin color, creed, ancestry, mental disability, and gender. Hatred or bias is not always manifested in physical harm to individuals but also includes threats, harassment, intimidation, and creation of hostile environments. Sometimes hatred or bias toward individuals and communities is displayed indirectly through arson and destruction, damage, or vandalism of property.
School-age youth and young adults perpetrate a significant proportion of the hate and bias crimes committed in the United States. Sociologists argue whether children are externally motivated to act out their biases by a society that struggles with tolerance and xenophobia. Psychologists argue whether children are inherently mischievous and egocentric but can be taught to modify their behavior and resolve intra and interpersonal conflict. Social scientific theories notwithstanding, many would agree that educators are well poised to dramatically impact youth development and steer youth toward empathy and acceptance of difference and away from prejudiced attitudes that lead to hatred and violence. Schools recognize that success with students and neighborhood youth cannot be accomplished alone. Parents, families, communities, and law enforcement must do their part to encourage young people to respect all human life in spite of physical, mental, and cultural differences.
The American school system is experiencing major demographic shifts in its student population, going from its predominantly English-speaking European American past to a future that will become dominated by immigrant students from African, Asian, and Latin countries, who will learn English for the first time at school. This reconfiguration may bode well for a more tolerant future American society where hate and bias crimes become indistinguishable from other types of crime. However, the current reality reveals a school system that is not getting high marks when it comes to cross-cultural acceptance and intergroup harmony.
The infamous Columbine high school massacre in Colorado in 1999 was at least in part motivated by racial, gender, and possibly sexual orientation hatred. A year earlier, two boys who claimed that University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard made sexual advances toward them murdered him. Wyoming state law prevented prosecution of crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, Muslims have become increasingly suspect and victims of hate crime because of their religious affiliation with the alleged perpetrators of the attacks.
Schools do more than educate young people; they also socialize youth for positioning in society. Adolescence and early adulthood are experienced from middle school through college; this represents a time when students wrestle with identity, sexuality, knowledge, beliefs, and ability. Competition to succeed can be fierce and schools are often held responsible for creating equitable, supportive, and safe environments. In a situation with high stakes and little room for failure, students can be particularly vulnerable and succumb to the types of behavior that result in hate crimes. Experimentation with drugs and alcohol is often the catalyst for impulsive and premeditated acts of violence against targeted groups.
Schools that anticipate the possibility of hate and bias criminal activity prepare by establishing rules and policies that spell out the consequences for students who unfairly violate protected individuals and groups. They realize that prevention through training, advertisement, and even the curriculum is the best way to deal with such behavior. High school clubs and athletic teams and college fraternities and sororities that haze students are put on notice that such practices can escalate to the point where outside law enforcement may be brought in to prosecute criminal behavior. If after investigation it is determined that the crime committed was motivated by hate, then the consequences are likely to be harsher, such as more jail time or increased fines.
American schools are indeed challenged to educate an increasingly diverse student body. No one is exactly sure about the best strategy to adopt to ensure that individuals and groups that have not traditionally enjoyed widespread social acceptance are provided safe and supportive learning environments. Some educators advocate multicultural education because it incorporates the significance and contribution of various cultural heritages to student learning and recognizes the value of good human relations in student development. Other educators, while acknowledging the import of such strategies as multicultural education, if it is taken seriously, place more emphasis on the importance of the larger society taking responsibility to work harder toward promoting the rights of historically oppressed, hated, and violated groups.
- Anti-Defamation League. (1997). How to combat bias and hate crimes: An ADL blueprint for action. Available from http://www.adl.org/blueprint.pdf
- Herek, G. M., Cogan, J. C., & Gillis, J. R. (2002). Victim experiences in hate crimes based on sexual orientation. Journal of Social Issues, 58(2), 319–339.
- FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program, Hate Crime Statistics 2006: http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/hc2006/abouthc.htm
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