Five months after a Corona, California, high school student was killed in a racially motivated attack off campus, Center co-founder Morris Dees came to the area and told thousands of educators that they had a pivotal role in teaching children about tolerance.
He said that the "keys to the gates of opportunity and justice" were in their hands, reported the Los Angeles Times today.
"Your job as educators is to build a community in our schools that represents inclusion," Dees said. "We've been able as a nation to overcome, because we've had dedicated educators such as yourselves who have devoted their lives to helping others and educating young people in this country."
Dees spoke yesterday to more than 3,000 teachers, administrators and staff of the Corona-Norco Unified School District at a church in Corona. His talk came after a series of racially charged incidents involving students in regional high schools there in the last two years.
The most violent occurred in May, when 15-year-old Centennial High School student Dominic Redd, who was black, was killed while walking home from school. His alleged assailants were three Latino gang members who yelled racial slurs as they stabbed him.
Since 2003, other incidents included the beating of two black students by four white students at Murrieta Valley High School; a fight among 200 students at Temescal Canyon High School in Lake Elsinore, which was triggered by racial slurs; and a racially motivated fight at Centennial High in March.
Dees was invited to speak by former Corona Councilman Jeff Bennett. He and his wife, Nan Eisley-Bennett, are longtime supporters of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"Every child should be exposed to tolerance and diversity," Eisley-Bennett said. "Perhaps if it happened more frequently, we wouldn't have racial hatred and violence."
Dees said that the changing racial dynamics of the area may be triggering some of the incidents. Reported hate crimes grew nearly 20 percent in Riverside and San Bernardino counties in 2003, while declining statewide 10 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times story.
"The demographic and racial makeup of this county are changing," Dees said. "With that change comes fear, and many times hate crimes. You're not alone. Hate crimes are happening all over the United States."
Tim Pike, assistant superintendent of student services, said the district planned to incorporate elements of the Center's Teaching Tolerance program.
"Tensions occur on every high school campus in this country," he said. "Our goal in the district is to make sure we do the types of things we need to do so we don't develop real serious issues."