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Because Teaching About Intolerance is Not Enough by Annmarie Urso, Ph.D.

The Road to Intolerance is Paved with Good Intentions

As a parent, a long-time teacher in K-12 schools, and now as a teacher educator, I have taught about diversity, acceptance, and tolerance. I have supported the messages of our civil rights leaders, and highlighted the laws that provide equal access to education and constitutional rights for all our citizens.  I have encouraged my children and students, through example and education, that we are all members of one human race entitled to respect and equal rights. I realize that I have fallen short in my responsibility because I have neglected to teach my children and students how to stand up against intolerance and bigotry when they see it.  I have neglected to provide the time and attention to fully respond to my pre-service teachers’ confrontations with institutional racism and bias in the schools they work in. I would suggest we all have fallen short in our responsibility to help shape an inclusive philosophy in our future generations.  Several recent events have brought this matter to my attention that I wish to share with you. Last fall over the course of one month, five young people took their lives after being cyber-bullied or harassed for issues of sexuality, ethnicity, or gender. Early this year, a student at a public Utah high school attended a pep rally in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe; subsequent investigation into this racist incident revealed it was not an isolated occurrence in the district. Last month, a high school in Birmingham, Alabama held meetings with parents after racist comments were found written on a bathroom wall, a racist note was found in the mailbox of a teacher, and another note was found in a student’s locker.

These are not isolated incidents.Early in March of this year, the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) issued a memo regarding poor sportsmanship displayed in the February 26, 2011 Boys Basketball Section 3A Final Championship Game between Fountain Hills High School and Holbrook High School .  The images of male fans  from the predominantly White student body of Fountain Hills High School, in Fountain Hills, Maricopa County,  making obscene gestures toward fans, including young children, from the predominantly Native American community of Holbrook High School in Holbrook, AZ, Navajo County, is beyond unsportsmanlike conduct, it is racist behavior. The ensuing verbal confrontation resulted in the ejection of a fan from Holbrook High School. The AIA is investigating the incident.  The still on-going tensions between Anglo and Native American peoples are not going unnoted in mainstream media as demonstrated in a recent op-ed on the Huffington Post entitled, The Last Acceptable Racism: Native Americans by David Kimelberg  Mr. Kimelberg’s piece is written from his cultural lens as a Native American (Seneca Tribe, Bear Clan), Jewish male who calls attention to the tolerance our society holds for racism against Native American population and his theory on why.

The Road to Tolerance is Paved by Those with the Courage and the Knowledge of How to Stand Up

“The world is too dangerous to live in, not because of the people

who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen.”

Albert Einstein

While all these incidents fuel the outrage of citizens who promote inclusion of all cultural diversities (e.g., religion, sex, gender, ability, language, ethnicity, and race), there has been minimal national discourse on how parents, families, teachers, and community members can do more than instill a disdain for intolerance.  Until recently that is.

Resources for Parents, Teachers, Schools, and Communities.

A national movement called ThinkB4YouSpeak sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and the National Ad Council is hitting the airwaves, network TV, and internet with Public Service Announcements (PSAs) regarding acts of intolerance and bigotry.  The PSAs feature mainstream pop culture figures speaking out and educating against bias toward the gay community. Additionally, the organization provides resources for parents and teachers on how we can extend student learning from developing awareness of bigotry and prejudice to developing skills for addressing them and promoting social action.  An additional resource for bringing awareness and developing skills to address intolerant behavior of all kinds is Speak Up! from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. The center published Speak Up! in November 2009which explores real examples of intolerance and bigotry in everyday life and how we can respond.  Stand Up! and Speak Up! civic training programs are popping up throughout the country in response to incidents like those discussed above.

Another project of the Law Center that is a wonderful source for the education community and parents is Teaching Tolerance , a free magazine that takes an in-depth look at issues of social justice and equity. Additionally, the website is a repository for classroom activities, teaching kits, professional development, and resources.  Similarly, the Equity Alliance at ASU is a leading organization in promoting equity, access, participation, and positive outcomes for all students. Their Learning Carousel provides a wealth of resources through collaboration with like-minded organizations including the National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems (NCCRESt), the National Center for Urban School Improvement (NIUSI), and NIUSI-LeadScape.  These resources are all linked at the bottom of this blog.

A Heart-felt Plea.

There is no place for bias and bigotry in an inclusive society. How can we, as a global community, ever address the vast inequities in education that surround issues of poverty, educational outcomes for minority students, funding, educating English Language Learners, and inclusion of students with differing abilities if we don’t promote an inclusive society in our classrooms, schools, and communities?

Many schools have spent years inculcating Civic Education into their curriculum. Through Character Education, a concerted program of teaching and modeling civic virtue and moral character in our youth for a more compassionate and responsible society. Now, new programs in Civic Education are available to teach students how to identify discrimination and respond to intoleranceThese programs are designed to providing training in recognizing and reacting to injustice in all areas of cultural diversity, in a safe and a meaningful way.  While there are many programs available that address this content, the procedures are similar and the underlying goals are the same.  The programs use informed discussion and role-plays to have students examine various scenarios involving intolerance and bullying behavior and explore alternate choices that could have been made by the various characters involved. By participating in this training, the hope is that students further their understanding regarding the seriousness of intolerant behavior and reflect on the responsibility of the community to respond to the injustice.


Like many educators, I have not personally experienced the depth of bigotry and bias depicted in the incidents above. However, I have seen bias, I have heard bigotry, and I have seen violence against individuals of cultural diversity both first hand and in the media. I have witnessed the impact of poverty, institutional racism, and social injustice; and I have felt sadness and anger in response. I am disheartened and fearful for our future if we don’t stand up and take action against intolerance and teach others to do so as well. I will be incorporating informed discussions and role-playing into my coursework for pre-service educators. Through awareness and training, we all can react to intolerance and a real difference can be made.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.

If an elephant has his foot on the tail of a mouse and you say you are neutral,

the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” ~ Desmond Tutu


Speak up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry (2005) Southern Poverty Law Center

Teaching Tolerance: A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center


Author Biography: Dr. Urso earned her Ph.D. in Special Education at the University of Arizona, her M.S. Ed. in Reading from the State University of New York at Oneonta and her B.S. in Special Education from the College of St. Rose. She has over 20 years’ experience teaching students in K-12 and adult populations in New York State. Dr. Urso has also worked extensively in the southwest training teachers and para-educators to work with students who have learning disabilities on Native American Indian Reservations. She has presented her research at national and international conferences. Dr. Urso believes we need to prepare teachers who are culturally competent and committed to social justice. She also believes our teachers must be highly skilled in effective, culturally responsive assessment, intervention and instructional techniques for children with disabilities. She is actively involved in supporting local school districts in their efforts to support students with learning differences. Currently, Dr. Urso is an Assistant Professor in the Ella Cline Shear School of Education at the State University of New York at Geneseo.

10 Responses to “Because Teaching About Intolerance is Not Enough by Annmarie Urso, Ph.D.”

  1. Elaine Mulligan on 7/14/11 10:03 AM US/Eastern

    First, let me say that I’m so glad to see the wisdom of Ann Marie Urso in a public forum. She was my professor for Multicultural Exceptionalities in grad school She probably altered my whole career path by opening my eyes to the inequities that are endemic to special education simply because we don’t see the ways in which we bring our own skewed perspectives to our work.

    Second, I’d like to share another resource. The PACER center in Minnesota houses the National Bullying Prevention Center, which houses great resources for schools, families, kids and teens.

  2. Annmarie Urso on 7/14/11 3:58 PM US/Eastern

    Dear Elaine,
    Thank you for posting the resource from The Pacer Center! I will be using this resource as well. Your words are too kind. I look forward to your work and impact at NICHCY – a seminal resource in the field of special education for parents & families, teachers, and the professional and local community.

  3. Bradley Leger on 8/12/11 9:27 AM US/Eastern

    Dear Dr. Urso,
    Thank you so much for sharing this great information. I plan on adding you to my list of high-quality resources in my work with Equity, Access and Opportunity. I am also extremely appreciative of the work that the staff members of the Equity Alliance at ASU are doing. They have had a tremendous positive impact on me professionally and personally.

  4. Annmarie Urso on 8/17/11 1:21 PM US/Eastern

    Dear Bradley,
    I am glad you found these resources helpful. Thank you for your work on Equity, Access, and Opportunity. It is important we all carry this message to our communities. The Equity Alliance at ASU is a tremendous resource. Continue to spread the word!

  5. De Marq Jaque on 9/22/11 11:48 PM US/Eastern

    An often glossed over, yet extremely important topic. Thank you for being brave enough to bring it to the forefront. Like many educators dealing with “isms” in any form can be difficult. Luckily, most of us are empathetic and engage in activities we hope eliminate this negative behavior based upon misunderstanding, misinformation and xenophobia. Unfortunately, most often we are relegated to using “teachable moments” due to the business of meeting academic standards. Although I see relationships between “diverse” students have become more relaxed when events do occur, the outrage rarely leaps from words into action. As my students say, “stop talking about it, and be about it”.

  6. Annmarie Urso on 9/24/11 8:00 PM US/Eastern

    Hi De Marq,

    I really like what your students say, “STOP TALKING ABOUT IT, AND BE ABOUT IT”…wisdom beyond their years!

    I am very sad to say another young person has lost their life to bullying; this student to the impact of bullying over his sexuality. A beautiful, bright, 14 year old young man, Jamey Rodemeyer from Williamsport, NY. His parents found him dead last weekend and buried him today. The bullying was so severe he took his own life.

    By all accounts Jamey was dealing with the bullying – it was not a secret he had been bullied. He even made a “It’s get better” video and posted it on you tube early this year. So what happened? Everyone thought Jayme was dealing with the bullying about his sexuality just fine. Jamey’s friends said he was still being bullied, but “did well with it”. His father said Jamey put up a brave face and fooled everyone; he went on to say how he wished his son had let them know how bad the bullying had become to deal with. Despite his friends knowing the bullying was continuing, Jamey continued to indicate to all that he was okay, school was great, and high school was going well.

    How many of our children will we lose? What can we do to help the students like Jamey who put up the “brave face” or don’t share their pain? We must create safe spaces for our students to discuss their pain – when students are being bullied we do them a great disservice to say, “you can chose to be happy, focus on your happiness”, etc. Real pain needs to be acknowledge. We need to understand and be supportive. We cannot promise pain will get better or that if you just choose to be happy, things will get better – it puts the burden of feeling the pain on the student.

    Our students who are being bullied need empathy and understanding; we cannot let them go ignored. We must stop dismissing the reactions felt to bullying with euphemisms that put the onus of the victim’s response to the bullying on themselves.

    However, like cancer and other insidious diseases, I don’t think we can eliminate the devastating impact of bullying without addressing the cause. This begs the question, so what do we do about the bullies? What about the students that posted hateful words about Jamey on social networking sites, or said them to his face, or wrote them where he could read them? What to do about the bullies? How will we re-educate their minds and their hearts to understand that words can be just as deadly as a knife or gun? Can we? I believe that we must do so much more than support the victim – we must address the root cause. Bullying is intolerable and unacceptable in our society ~ And that is another blog post. But I think it is time to do what your students say, Stop talking about it, and be about it.

    RIP James Rodemeyer. You were lost to us way too early.

  7. J. Ledesma on 9/24/11 8:36 PM US/Eastern

    Dr. Urso,
    I greatly appreciate you listing all the wonderful teaching resources we could use to teach the youth how to deal with injustices, racism, intolerance to differences such as religion, sex, gender, ability, language, ethnicity, and race. It is true that we teach our students and children not to engage in such actions. We teach them about diversity, acceptance, and tolerance almost on a daily basis. However, I never thought about teaching them what to do or how to deal with it. We have to start making a change if we want to stop this horrible and evil cycle.

  8. Michelle Estrada on 9/26/11 1:41 AM US/Eastern

    First off, RIP James Rodemeyer and all the others who have been forced to take their lives the intolerance of others.
    I am completely devastated. I teach in Los Angeles, a multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-demographic school district, and I feel as though students do not share the brutality that they are put through. A teacher truly needs to be observant and know their students in order to notice when something is not right. Just because most of our students are not comfortable trusting their teachers with the truth, we must accept that these things are actually happening and teach our students how to stand up for others when they witness any type of intolerance. This should be year long, not only during the designated awareness month. A little anecdote hear…. a little anecdote there…. mix it in with the standards…. bring in a popular show here… make a reference to something you witnessed there… and before you know it, your students will have an earful of tolerance by the end of the year.

    I say it’s never too early to teach tolerance. Honestly, after an episode of Glee, my 6-year-old son asked me what gay meant. I was a little dumbfounded but I told him the truth. I didn’t get into how they made love or how its against the bible, or how much god doesn’t like gays. I told him the facts, its when a boy and another boy, or a girl and another girl, like each other. I told him its perfectly normal and we do not make fun of them. After a long conversation, he said, “ok mommy!” That seed has been planted. Later he will ask again, or comment of a gay couple on the street, or maybe even say something inappropriate; I will stand my ground, try my best to make sure that he understands that its perfectly normal and we do not make fun of them.

  9. Linda Schwarz on 9/27/11 1:36 AM US/Eastern

    Dr. Urso,

    Your points about bullying and “our” silence were so very well made. I went to observe a student, who I was working with privately, at his public school in a very well to do, “safe,” neighborhood in Los Angeles. This was one of the gentlest, insightful 11 year old boys that you could ever meet. Much to my surprise and confusion, a “shadow” had been assigned to him for recess and lunch. I couldn’t understand, and asked his teacher why this assignment had been made. Her response was that the student’s behavior was fine, but there were four boys who constantly bullied him and other students on the yard during recess and lunch. I just looked at her and asked, “Why not address the four bullies, instead of hiring shadows for students who know how to behave?” Her response was silence. I followed up, about the need for a shadow and other issues, and with the help of the school administration and the boy’s parents, got the student transfered to another public school (about 1/2 mile away), where he thrived both academically and socially without a shadow! Thank you for your good work.

  10. Annmarie Urso on 11/14/11 11:45 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you Linda for being an advocate for the student who was being bullied. How wonderful to here that they are THRIVING and spending their days in school being safe, nurtured, and respected. I hope that your school provided intervention and support for the 4 students who were bullying the child- what will their future be like if their behavior is not interrupted?