This is a busy week at most schools, with teachers and students returning from the holidays. But before everyone gets focused on what lies ahead, let’s revisit 2010. This list highlights five issues that had a profound effect on diversity and diversity education last year. This is not an exhaustive list. Feel free to add stories of your own.
1. Anti-LGBT Bullying and Prejudice
Tragically, September brought news of a string of suicides among LGBT youth. The stories turned a spotlight on anti-LGBT bullying and accelerated demands that districts and states adopt policies to protect all students. At the same time, Teaching Tolerance released its long-planned film, Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History. Bullied chronicles the story of Jamie Nabozny, who, after years of anti-gay bullying, sued his former school district and won. The September suicides prompted Dan Savage and his partner, Terry, to create the “It Gets Better” project in which thousands adult gays and lesbians posted YouTube videos to support and encourage LGBT youth. The site garnered millions of hits. At the end of the year, Congress repealed the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, ending a law that had effectively closed off the military as a career option for most LGBT high school students. However, Congress could not pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act, an anti-bullying bill that would have protected students from harassment based on sexual orientation or gender expression.
2. Anti-immigration Sentiment
Last spring, Arizona passed a law requiring police to arrest suspected immigrants who are unable to produce documents proving that they are in the country legally. Arizona’s action, which effectively legalizes racial profiling, ignited protests by Latinos—the law’s main targets. The Grand Canyon State also passed a law decreeing ethnic studies illegal, a direct shot at Tucson’s popular Mexican-American studies program. President Barack Obama criticized the immigration law and called for federal immigration reform. But the closest Congress came was a debate over the DREAM Act, which would have allowed undocumented students who were brought here as children to gain legal status by attending college or joining the military. The bill failed to secure passage in the Senate, leaving these young people, who are Americans in every sense but their legal status, with few options. Their employment prospects are limited and their futures remain uncertain.
3. Increasing Percentage of Children in Poverty
An estimated 1 in 6 children in the United States lives in poverty. That number is on the rise. More school children are homeless. Experts say that education is the best way to break the cycle of poverty. But the state and local tax revenues that support public schools are dwindling thanks to the recession. Most school districts have long since exhausted their reserves. They are looking to trim budgets by cutting teachers, slashing services, increasing class sizes and closing schools. Struggling urban and rural districts suffer the most. States face huge budget cutbacks of their own, the worst most have seen in a half-century. So they can offer districts little help.
4. Rosa's Law and Students with Disabilities
Last fall, President Obama signed Rosa’s Law, named for 9-year-old Rosa Marcellino. The law bans the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from official documents and replaces them with “intellectual disability” or “individual with an intellectual disability.” Rosa Marcellino has Down syndrome, and her family lobbied for the new law. Meanwhile, in post-Katrina New Orleans, which is often seen as the national laboratory for school reform, the public school system is continuing to fail students with disabilities. The Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups have taken legal action to address the challenges students with disabilities face. Those challenges include being pushed into schools that cannot provide them with federally mandated services and being pushed out of schools through record suspensions and expulsions.
5. Rise of Discrimination Against Muslims
Nearly a decade after the September 11 terror attacks, Muslims report increasingly tense and hostile conditions. Islamophobia is on the rise. Plans for and construction of several mosques around the country have been hotly protested. The loudest outcry came in New York City, where local Muslims had planned to build an Islamic cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero. A mosque in Florida was bombed, and a Christian minister in that same state created an international uproar by threatening to burn Qurans. Increasingly, Muslims feel uncomfortable at work as well. They filed more than 800 claims of workplace discrimination in 2009, up 60 percent over the previous three years.
Williamson is associate editor of Teaching Tolerance.