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A Hateful Prank

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An ugly incident of racial hatred, in which five high school seniors used their personal yearbook statements to spell out the coded message "kill all niggers" focused the nation's attention in June on Greenwich, Conn. But anyone who thinks the incident says something unique about Greenwich is missing the point entirely.

I was the Greenwich superintendent of schools between 1976 and 1989. Since then, my work in educational publishing has brought me in contact with administrators, principals, and teachers across the country. I can report that Greenwich is neither more nor less prone to incidents of this type than any other school district, anywhere else. They occur every day, everywhere.

The Greenwich incident received a lot of media attention not only because of its virulence, but also because of when and where it appeared: Graduation is a time when communities come together to express pride in the achievements of all their members; a high school yearbook is a document of hope and friendship. In this environment, the action of the five seniors is particularly jarring, a violation of an almost sacred American ritual. The fact that the incident occurred in a place as ostensibly wealthy as Greenwich, Conn., bolsters the suspicion--unspoken but strong--that such communities foster sentiments of superiority, exclusion, and racism.

Nothing could be further from the truth--every community harbors such sentiments. And every community has the wherewithal to fight them. What are its weapons?

Condemnation and punishment are clearly called for in cases of this severity. These must be treated for what they are: acts of hatred, not of youthful excess. A message straight out of the Ku Klux Klan is not a prank, but an act of aggression.

But punishment comes after the fact. Inculcating tolerance and respect from an early age is much more effective. Children learn prejudice easily, but they can unlearn it, too. That's where teaching is so vital. Teachers can turn incidents of prejudice into an opportunity to instruct and transform. By seizing on such moments in class, encouraging discussion, and relating them to what the kids have been learning, teachers can be a powerful force for reshaping the attitudes of impressionable young minds and hearts.

Books are indispensable to this effort. Stories and literature are powerful forces for teaching tolerance, because they introduce children to perspectives other than their own. A broadly read child will be a very hard target indeed for hatemongers.

The incident in a Greenwich school should also be cause for parents around the country to reflect on the environment at home. Prejudice doesn't erupt spontaneously in children, and it isn't taught in schools. A casual joke, an oft-repeated generalization about a particular group can be mimicked by children to the devastation of classmates. Over time, these attitudes grow in ugly ways no one can predict.

Finally, kids themselves need to play a role in the fight against hatred. They need to support one another in condemning prejudice, and not just "let it go." It isn't easy. But if tolerance and respect are encouraged by their parents and teachers, taught in the books they read, and held up as a group virtue, then by the time children reach graduation they will hopefully have lost any trace of the kind of the sentiments expressed by those five seniors.

Fighting prejudice in our schools takes a lot of courage, vigilance--and teaching that starts early and continues right through. The incident in Greenwich should shock, but not surprise; and certainly not lull us into the smug belief that, after all, only others do that sort of thing.

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