Magazine Feature

Two Decades of Teaching Tolerance

Explore our turning points from the last 20 years.

In 1991, when Morris Dees, a co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, decided to start the Teaching Tolerance program, he hoped to make young people more appreciative of diversity and less vulnerable to hate groups eager to recruit a following. The program he created would pioneer anti-bias education and bring free multicultural content directly to educators.

A lot has changed in 20 years. School reform has advanced at warp speed, immigration has increased, and American society has moved toward greater acceptance of gay men and lesbians. There has also been greater appreciation of ethnic and racial diversity, and a black president was elected for the first time. 

As these turning points show, however, progress has been met with new challenges. While LGBT youth have far more support in schools, in the form of Gay-Straight Alliances and stronger laws, they  still suffer high levels of bullying and harassment. The election of an African-American president has not slowed the resegregation of schools, nor has it addressed the stubborn achievement gap for students of color. Students with disabilities have gained better  educational services, but too often they must go to court to gain access.

The last 20 years have raised awareness about the benefits of diversity, and it’s clear that anti-bias efforts are important to educators. We’re proud of the role Teaching Tolerance has played. But much more must be done before we can say we’ve accomplished our mission: to promote respect for differences and an appreciation of diversity in the classroom and beyond.

1991 Charter schools get a boost when Minnesota becomes the first state to authorize them. Today, more than 1.7 million students are enrolled in some 5,400 charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Despite being lauded as laboratories of innovation, charters have not had a significant impact on student achievement, according to several major studies. 

1992 ↑ Religious pluralism makes gains when the Supreme Court rules 5–4, in Lee v. Weisman, that clergy-led prayers at official public school events force students to act in ways which establish a state religion and thus violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

1992 ↓ Six days of rioting takes place in Los Angeles after an all-white jury acquits four white police officers over their brutal beating of Rodney King, a defenseless black man. Many attribute the rioters’ frustration and anger to inner-city poverty, segregation, police abuse and lack of educational and employment opportunities.

1993 ↑ Gay students are recognized when Massachusetts becomes the first state to pass a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. The law results from a report co-authored by Kevin Jennings, an openly gay teacher who, in 1990, founded the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). To date, 14 states have enacted anti-bullying laws that specifically protect LGBT youth.

1993 ↓ Juvenile justice becomes less about rehabilitation when the state of Washington passes a “three strikes” law that requires mandatory and extended sentences following a third felony conviction. Other states follow suit. And in a 2009 case, the California Supreme Court ruled that juvenile felony convictions can be counted as “strikes.” The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear any appeals. These laws disproportionately affect men of color.

1994 ↑ Women’s sports come of age when the Equity in Athletic Disclosure Act, an amendment to Title IX, passes. By requiring collegiate athletic programs to disclose roster sizes, budgets and salaries, the law makes it easier to monitor gender equity efforts. Title IX is credited with a huge increase in sports participation by girls and women.        

1994 ↑ Schools join the information age. The National Center for Education Statistics reports 35 percent of public schools have computers with Internet access. Six years later, that figure reaches nearly 100 percent.

1995 ↑ High school Gay-Straight Alliances get a rocky start when the Salt Lake City, Utah, school board bans all extra-curricular clubs rather than allow high school senior Kelli Peterson and a friend to form a GSA at East High School. Three years later, the Tides Foundation launches the GSA Network in the San Francisco Bay Area and 40 schools take part. Today, there are more than 3,000 GSAs nationally.

1996 ↓ A national backlash ensues when the Oakland, Calif., school board votes to recognize Ebonics—a term for African-American Vernacular English—as a dialect spoken by black children.

1997 The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed in 1990, is expanded to cover students with developmental and attention-deficit disorders. The new amendments also strengthen requirements for mainstreaming special-needs students and prohibit states from eliminating educational services that benefit the 6.5 million children today who qualify under IDEA. However, the SPLC and other groups must sometimes sue school districts to force compliance.

1998 ↓ Bilingual education succumbs to xenophobia when 61 percent of California voters approve Proposition 227, which replaces bilingual education with “structured English immersion.” A few other states follow suit. A five-year study of the law’s impact in California finds “no conclusive evidence favoring one instructional program over another.”

1998 ↑ Americans are outraged by the torture and murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. The killing and the homophobia that led to it receive national media coverage, as does the Westboro Baptist Church, a hate group led by Fred Phelps that pickets Shepard’s funeral. The events also inspire The Laramie Project, a well-received play that opens in 2000.

1998 ↑ Homeless students’ right to education is protected in Alabama when the SPLC sues on behalf of Penny Doe, an unnamed homeless student who had been refused school admission. As part of the settlement, Alabama’s State Board of Education makes important policy changes. 

1999 ↓ “Zero tolerance” disciplinary policies, already common, proliferate in U.S. schools in the aftermath of the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado. The massacre fuels national discussions about school violence, disaffected youth, bullying and school security. 

2000  The Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) loses in its effort to challenge the equity of high-stakes testing. The group sues to block Texas’ high school exit exam, citing disproportionate failure rates among black and Latino students. MALDEF also argues that the exit exam leads to higher dropout rates for minority students. A federal judge rules against MALDEF. 

2000 The spotlight falls on teachers in the PBS documentary The First Year, which follows five educators beginning their careers in struggling L.A. schools. The documentary’s creator, Davis Guggenheim, releases Waiting for “Superman” in 2010. Superman is seen by many educators as contributing to teacher-bashing. 

2001 ↓ The plight of children brought into the country by undocumented immigrant parents is addressed with the introduction of the DREAM Act (short for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) in the U.S. Senate. The bill provides a way for undocumented children to gain legal residency through military service or education. Ten years later, though, the bill remains stalled in Congress.

2001 ↓ Anti-Muslim prejudice intensifies following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Even though President George W. Bush reminds Americans that we are not at war with Muslims, bias crimes are reported against Muslims, Sikhs and others.

2002 ↓ Schools focus single-mindedly on data-driven results—and meeting AYP goals—with the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act. Although intended to address the achievement gap, the law has made little impact on the academic achievement of children of color and low-income students. Since passage of the law, schools have become more segregated and curricula more narrow.

2002 ↑ Homeless children receive greater support for remaining in school with the reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, first passed in 1987.

2002 ↓ Vouchers get a thumbs up by the U.S. Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which upholds the constitutionality of a school voucher system in Ohio.

2002 ↓ Unaccompanied immigrant children are denied the right to legal representation in deportation hearings. In Gonzalez Machado v. Ashcroft, the SPLC sues on behalf of these minors. The federal judge dismisses the complaint, saying undocumented immigrants do not have a constitutional right to representation in civil cases.

2003 ↓ Lack of confidence in public schooling is reflected in the report “Homeschooling in the United States: 2003,” in which the Department of Education estimates 1.1 million students are being homeschooled—a 29 percent increase from 1999. That number will soar to 1.9 million by 2011.

2004 ↑ People with intellectual disabilities win greater acceptance and respect when the Special Olympics Sport and Empowerment Act appropriates funding to expand the international sports program.

2004 ↑ The University of Alabama publicly apologizes for its past association with slavery. Other universities, in southern and northern states, do the same. In 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives passes a nonbinding resolution apologizing to African Americans for the “injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow.”

2006 Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects an increasing number of children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of diagnoses has increased by an average of 3 percent annually from 1997 to 2006. As of 2007, 2.7 million youth (ages 4–17) take medication for the disorder.

2007 ↑ The SPLC launches a “School-to-Prison Reform Project” to enhance educational opportunities for youth and to reform the juvenile justice system in southern states. The project seeks supportive services, citing statistics showing that up to 85 percent of youth in juvenile detention qualify for special education services but only 37 percent receive them. 

2009 The first person of color elected to the presidency assumes office when Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. A week earlier, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA releases a report stating African-American and Hispanic students face greater de facto school segregation than at any time since the civil rights movement.

2009 ↑ Sexual orientation and gender identity are recognized as characteristics that provoke hate crimes with passage of the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act. 

2010 ↑ The r-word gets taken down when Rosa’s Law changes references in federal laws from mental retardation to intellectual disability. The law is named for Rosa Marcellino, a 9-year-old Maryland girl with Down syndrome.

2010 ↓ Rising anti-immigrant sentiment is reflected in Arizona’s controversial Senate Bill 1070, a rare foray by a state into immigration law. Other states, like Alabama and Georgia, soon follow Arizona’s lead.

2010 The plight of LGBT youth gets national attention with the news of several suicides by LGBT (or perceived-LGBT) students across the United States. At the same time, several campaigns to support gay and lesbian teens get underway, including the Teaching Tolerance documentary Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History, the “It Gets Better” YouTube project and the GSA Network’s “Make it Better” campaign.

2011 A school policy that discriminates against LGBT students is challenged when the SPLC files a lawsuit against Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District. The suit claims that despite enduring several student suicides tied to anti-LGBT bullying, the district has done little to protect LGBT students and has stood by a curriculum policy that prevents teachers from talking about LGBT issues.

2011 ↑ Teaching Tolerance celebrates its 20th anniversary.