School Climate & Safety Opinion

Where Does Hate Come From? An Educator Responds to Orlando

By Peter DeWitt — June 16, 2016 4 min read
Mourners attend a candlelight vigil in downtown Orlando, Fla., on Monday, the day after an attack on a gay nightclub left 49 people dead.

Another mass shooting in America. This one was at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., which left 49 people dead in what many are calling the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. Mass shooting and U.S. history are words that should never go together. And yet, we have heard them many times before, especially where our schools are concerned, and we sadly may hear them again.

Words like ignorance, discrimination, and terrorism are embedded in our vernacular these days, especially when the conversation is about the LGBT community. Minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day, these words are spoken and heard around the kitchen table, in public conversations, and on television.

The politicians come next. They make speeches from airports or the campaign trail, in front of state capitols or in the nation’s capital. Microphones in hand, they make their statements to their constituents. They always begin with their sadness and prayers for the families of the victims, and then they move on to how they would stop the madness. They end with how the other party always gets in the way. Another tragedy, another political opportunity.

Young people, especially K-12 students, shouldn't have to worry about a shooter."

Social media is always abuzz following this news. People with genuine concern and empathy post temporary profile pictures to symbolize their unity with the communities that have lost their loved ones. And Facebook, for one, has complied, offering us the opportunity to post an image overlay to our profile pictures, be it the French flag, the American flag, the rainbow flag, or some other nod to the latest tragedy. But when we read trending stories and the comments—be they about politicians, the presidential campaign, or a gorilla incident at a zoo—we can see where the hate starts. We can see it starts with us. It might begin with just a few people and a slow burn, but evil often seems to follow.

It is said that for every positive statement a child hears, he receives 10 that are negative. And when it comes to negativity, social media is a force multiplier. But long before social media came crashing like a meteor into our lives, hatred was a presence. We have long sat around the dinner table using foul language to describe people who don’t look like us or yelled outrage at the TV screen because we thought some group believed it deserved special treatment. The LGBT community has certainly been on the receiving end of this hate and discrimination.

When I was a child, parents didn’t have to worry about the 24/7 media reporting of negative stories. Kids ran around outside, rode their bikes, and played in the woods without concern. The only people chasing us were our friends during a game of hide-and-seek. Today, many children, even in the safest communities, don’t play outside without adult supervision. They don’t feel free to run and ride their bikes with their friends because someone might hurt them.

No matter how hard, painful, or tragic the events of this week were, we must move forward for our students."

It is devastating and heartbreaking to think that 49 people—LGBT or straight—went out on a Saturday night and never made it home. Many were young and had families, and most were in the prime of their lives. The rest of us should be thankful for the chance to live another day and for the families we have around us. We should send our thoughts and prayers—not our animosity—to the victims and those they left behind.

And when we are pointing to some deep, dark shadow in the night—what I’m calling evil—we should really be thinking about what we say publicly and privately—on social media, around the dinner table, or inside the schoolhouse walls. Our words matter. Our children are always watching, listening, and learning from what we say.

The sorrow many of us have felt since the massacre is profound. Regardless of whether one is LGBT or straight, most of us know what it’s like to be at a club on a random Saturday night having fun with our friends. Those of us who are old enough remember when we worried only about a designated driver and having a good time. Young people, especially K-12 students, shouldn’t have to worry about a shooter.

I came out roughly 20 years ago. My first words to my sister Trish were, “Don’t tell Mom. I really don’t plan on telling too many people about this.” Now, with a doctoral dissertation and a book on safeguarding LGBT students under my belt, I guess the secret is out. Rather than sensing progress, the tragedy in Orlando makes many of us in the LGBT community feel like we’ve been forced to retreat.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the actor, composer, and star of Broadway’s “Hamilton,” paid tribute to the victims in Orlando, at the 70th annual Tony Awards on Sunday just hours after the shooting, by declaring in his acceptance speech for best score, “Love is love is love is love is love.”

No matter how hard, painful, or tragic the events of this week were, we must move forward for our students. They are the ones who can help end some of this madness as long as we teach them about diversity, acceptance, and, yes, loving their fellow students—before it’s too late. Our words matter.

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