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Education, not punishment, for Mississippi students who disrupted Matthew Shepard play

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

The Bias Incident Response Team at the University of Mississippi said that 90% of audience members who attended an Oct. 1 performance of "The Laramie Project" have undergone an "educational dialogue" after the play was disrupted and cast members were heckled, including gay slurs. An unknown number of the school's football team were at the play, which dealt with the 1998 killing of Matthew Shepard.

The bias team released its second report this week and said that after interviews with members of the cast and audience, it could not conclusively prove what was said or done by whom. Therefore, no individual punishment could  be recommended. From the update:

However, the BIRT has determined that some members of the student audience, which included more than 100 men and women, both students and student-athletes, made derogatory remarks and engaged in inappropriate behavior during the October 1st performance. These inappropriate actions pertained to the performers' sexuality and body construction and had serious and direct effects on the cast and crew members. The BIRT also determined that the negative comments were overheard by both cast and crew members, and by some members of the audience.

The educational dialogue dealt with "impact on victims, offenders, and community stakeholders; perception, intent, and impact regarding behavior; obligations regarding the University as a community, as well as a larger local, regional, and national community; need for respect and compassion between those who felt victimized and those who felt offended; role of the academic community with respect to being exposed to different ideas and perspectives; and the concept of active bystander behavior."

The only gay member of the cast told the school paper he thought the dialogue went well: "Honestly, I had my reservations going in, but I left the meeting truly blessed to be a part of this campus," Garrison Gibbons said. "I think we all want to move on from the event and continue working towards equality and acceptance as a university."

The bias team has proposed further improvements to the curriculum and support for programs that help the LGBTQ students on campus. Without being able to single out perpetrators for punishment, education and dialogue are good solutions to make this a classic "teaching moment."