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Safe Classrooms, Safe Kids

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The story of Matthew Shepard is well-known today -- Matthew, a 21-year-old gay man, was tied to a post, beaten, and left to die by the side of the prairie in Laramie, Wyoming. His murderers were two young men around his own age. One reportedly declared no regret -- gay men like Matthew were a threat who "needed killing," he said.

October marked the 15th anniversary of Matthew's death. As a new month begins, I'm called to consider how we can make sure that classrooms, at least, are safe spaces, and how we can train children in tolerance, not hate.

Since October of 1998, our nation has evolved. President Obama has signed hate-crimes legislation into law, as have many individual states. (Wyoming, however, is one of five states that still lack such laws.)

Despite progress, violence continues, and not just against LGBTQ individuals. In 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigations reported over 6,000 hate crimes in the States. Roughly half were racially motivated. Twenty percent were based on sexual orientation, and three quarters of these victims were people of color. Just over 10 and 20 percent, respectively, were crimes targeting ethnicity and religion.

How can we expect our students to feel safe amidst all of this? Not only do I worry about hate crimes in our nation, I worry about hate itself in our schools. I worry about the quieter, daily dangers our students face.

Eighty percent of LGBTQ youth report verbal harassment at school. Nearly half of transgender youth have considered suicide. Children of color absorb a societal chant of "not pretty enough, not smart enough, too dangerous," everywhere from TV to twitter. These messages hurt.

And kids don't learn when they're hurting. I think about the first-graders I taught who had constant tooth and head pain. Most of the students in my class didn't have proper dental hygiene, and the toothaches this caused kept them from their work. I could help my students through that pain. I referred them to community dentists and got our school a grant for dental health.

But a high school freshman coming to terms with his sexuality is less likely to speak up than a first grader with a toothache. His pain may run very deep and stay very silent.

In these moments, students can't grow and develop in the ways they deserve to. When kids can't be themselves, they lose out on the important social and emotional growth that school provides. They miss out on relationships with peers and adults because of fear. They're at heightened risk of drug abuse and suicide.

As educators and those who support them, it's hard to know how to help. Hate is large and we are just individuals. The task is daunting and the news is grim. Supportive schools won't solve all our children's problems and they won't wipe away all of their fears. But they're a start. I know there are countless educators who are making daily change -- and those small actions might just chip away at the pain.

At Teach For America, we support these actions with the S.A.F.E schools initiative, aimed at creating classrooms that are Safe and Affirming For Everyone. S.A.F.E partners with the Trevor Project, a 24-hour hotline for youth contemplating suicide, and the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to help teachers support all their students. I think about the actions, large and small, that our corps members and alumni are making every day:

I think about Kelly Woodard, a current corps member in the Rio Grande Valley, who teaches at Southwest Early College High School and founded the school's first Diversity Club. Every day, up to forty students show up to talk about issues of gender identity, race, or sexuality with Kelly and other faculty allies.

I think about Aaron Schwindt, a GNO '10 corps member, who testified to the Orleans Parish School Board on behalf of his students to make sure an anti-bullying law included protections for gender identity, sexual orientation, and race.

I also think about the teachers who make their classrooms a safe place to discuss and process racial discrimination. I think about Jenee Henry, a 2009 corps member in Atlanta, who fostered discussions about prejudice, violence and discrimination in her literature and social studies classes. She taught young leaders like Joshua Elligan, who wrote powerfully about the dangers of stereotypes he faces as a young black male, and was published on Teach For America's national blog.

By teaching students to speak out like this, we empower them. By helping kids support one another, we give them hope. Teachers can provide a welcoming space for students when they feel unwelcome in the world. Educators can be allies. They can guide their students in respect for one another's differences. They can make hotlines and resources accessible. And by teaching, loving, and leading each day, they make change.