Beyond Tolerance 

Hellgate High School senior Erin Schweber stills recalls how her teachers and school administrators chose to address the subjects of prejudice, intolerance and violence in her own school following the April shooting deaths of 15 students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

"When Columbine happened, there was not one discussion in any of my [classes] about it," says Schweber. "It was as if they didn't know how to go about broaching the subject."

But getting teachers and students, as well as parents and community leaders, to tackle these thorny issues is exactly what Schweber has been spending her summer doing. She and other volunteers at the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center are working to develop a curriculum that will incorporate compassion, understanding and acceptance of ethnic and racial diversity into the mainstream of Missoula public education.

“It’s not about inspiring do-gooders,” says Jeannette Rankin Peace Center Director Sally Thompson about the Learning Compassion Curriculum, designed to teach students about ethnic and racial diversity. “It’s about ... opening a door and then creating a path through it.”


The program, called the Learning Compassion Curriculum, is the brainchild of the Center's new executive director, Sally Thompson, who recounts how during her first week of work, she read an article in which the Dalai Lama called on western nations to teach compassion with the same diligence as they teach other academic subjects.

"Here was a good question for the Peace Center," says Thompson. "What would a compassion curriculum look like? Where would we start if we took that challenge seriously?"

So Thompson did just that, opening dialogues with other community leaders, teachers, parents and students to not only identify creative ways of broaching the subject, but to avoid the obvious pitfalls of political correctness that can stymie meaningful dialogue.

"I've always struggled with the language of tolerance," says Thompson. "Would you rather have a person be compassionate of you, or tolerant of you?"

"I think it's sad that we're living in a day and age where we have to be so politically correct, trying not to offend anyone around us that we don't allow ourselves to express our opinions and then grow from them," says Schweber. "If we learn the skills of respect, then we can speak freely, because we trust inherently that we're going to be respectful."

Essentially, the curriculum will not "teach" compassion per se, but create environments and situations where students share their own personal stories of prejudice, hatred, and violence, (or conversely, courage, strength and inspiration) so that young people can become more receptive to new ideas.

Thompson also emphasizes that the curriculum, funded by a $2,500 matching grant from a local anonymous donor, will not replace existing academic curricula. In fact, it won't even be introduced through the normal administrative channels, but will involve teams of teachers and students working outside the schools who are already looking for innovative ways of teaching their current subjects.

Each year, the center will pick a specific topic, such as religion, ethnicity, the elderly, the disabled, or sexual and gender differences, and create work packets to help teachers integrate these subjects into their academic regimen. During their first year, they plan to create an ethnic diversity package that places particular emphasis on Native American issues.

At first glance, the problem of ethnic and racial intolerance may seem minuscule in Missoula's predominantly white, middle-class population. Currently, the Missoula Police Department doesn't even track acts of violence in the public schools, nor does it keep a tab on racially or ethnically motivated crimes committed by or against teens, according to Lt. Dick Lewis of the Missoula Police Department.

The situation isn't much different at the state level, where the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) has traditionally tracked only gun-related incidents among students, which have only averaged between 12 and 18 per year. But in light of national events like Littleton, those priorities appear to be changing rapidly.

According to Spencer Sartorius of OPI's Health Enhancement Division, within the next month or two the state will begin a comprehensive system of recording incidents involving drugs, alcohol, violence and other behavior-related acts that result in a student's suspension or expulsion.

Locally, the "Beyond Violence" project, an offshoot of the Learning Compassion Curriculum, is aimed at creating a public forum where teenagers and adults can talk about prejudice and violence in their own lives and offer creative ways to overcome those problems. Beyond Violence, which is loosely based on non-violent conflict resolution programs used in correctional facilities, will also include a database to identify the causes of violence in our community.

Thompson says that the Learning Compassion Curriculum is not about feeding any prevailing "victim mentality" in our country, nor is it about generating guilt about who we are and where we come from.

"It's not about inspiring do-gooders," says Thompson. "It's about having a chance to bring the best we have to offer to the table ... about opening a door and then creating a path through it."

And when it comes to gauging the success of this program, Thompson pulls no punches, even for a peace advocate.

"That's one of the biggest wastes of time in American culture, the need to track and test and prove that you have made a difference," says Thompson. "You'll see it in the vitality of the community. You'll see that there's greater volunteerism going on, and the smiles on people's faces as they pass each other on the street and say hello to one another. You don't need to measure that."

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