October 7 marks the 10th anniversary of the harrowing beating and abandonment to death of Laramie, Wyoming, college student Matthew Shepard. For 18 hours, he hung between life and death, tied to the fence where his attackers left him, before he was found. Five days later, October 12, Shepard, 22, died.
This mindless savagery resonated worldwide, and of the countless acts of brutality that have occurred since Shepard’s death— and still are still occurring—sparked protest that only has grown with time.
In 1998, Moisés Kaufman and colleagues in the Tectonic Theater Project interviewed more than 200 individuals during their creation of The Laramie Project (2000) about the town and the murder. Kaufman and team have returned this year for more interviews with which they will write an epilogue, to be included in future performances of The Laramie Project.
What exactly has changed in that decade? There are more efforts to protect youngsters and adults alike from persecution, and more hate crime legislation. Yet hazings, injuries, and deaths suffered at the hands of classmates and fellow citizens continue (prominent recently the death of Lawrence King—shot to death in his classroom by a fellow student).
If one factor aside from family environment most greatly influences youngsters, I believe it is school. The attitude of teachers and school officials toward students who differ through race, religion, physical limitations, and gender and/or sexual orientation has a tremendous influence on other youngsters’ treatment of those individuals. Schools—in fact, any group where adults are in an instructional or mentoring relationship to youth—offer a powerful behavioral model.
The splendid Circus Juventas (see page 52), for example, is open to all youth, but requires that each member sign a document agreeing to adhere to standards including no hazing and mutual respect of others. Each time a teacher or principal turns a blind eye to bullying incrementally reinforces the tormentor’s sense of entitlement.
In Jane Levin’s poetry collection Legacy (see review next issue) is “P.S. 129”:
taunts prick like dirty needles
shot into the sex of the graceful boy
slumped against the chain link fence
baggy boys whoop their supremacy
as girls’ dark faces pull taut as jump ropes
smacked against cracked concrete
the principal glances
out his window
sees the boy
the red stain
then turns away
to take a bite
of his tuna