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Draper • Rulon Stacey said he truly learned what the word "hate" means in 1998, when he was CEO of the hospital where hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard was treated and ultimately died.

Stacey, a regional leader for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, visited Corner Canyon High School on Wednesday to meet with students involved in a production of "The Laramie Project," a play about Shepard's death that features a character based on Stacey.

As the public face of Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., where Shepard was transported after being attacked, tortured and left for dead, Stacey told the Draper students about navigating a media storm, arranging a call between President Bill Clinton and the Shepard family, and the angry and offensive letters he received after the news conference when Shepard's death was confirmed.

He recalled one letter, in which he was called a "sniveling swine" and asked whether he also cried when "normal" people died or just when gay patients did.

"There are people out there who hate people without knowing them," he said. "It was frightening for me to see that."

Students performed "The Laramie Project" at Corner Canyon High School last month, and the production won first place at a regional high school theater competition. A statewide competition is scheduled for April.

Kent Anderson, a senior at Corner Canyon, said "The Laramie Project" was important to him while he was coming out as gay. He watched the school's production last month and made a point of attending Stacey's visit Wednesday.

"[Matthew Shepard] died the year I was born," Anderson said. "I watched the play, and it's always dear to my heart."

Anderson is also involved in the school's Gay Straight Alliance, which was formed at Corner Canyon this year.

While still in its nascent stage, the club, Anderson said, could go a long way in helping gay students feel safe and included.

"There are so many closeted kids here in Draper that are just so afraid," he said. "It's so straight here, and we need some fabulousness in this school."

Corner Canyon Principal Mary Bailey said the Gay Straight Alliance has been a "wonderful" addition to the school community.

"Kids are happier at school when they find a place they belong," she said.

The club was launched as a response to an incident last fall, Bailey said, in which a group of Corner Canyon students harassed a gay couple at a restaurant after one of the school's football games.

"It didn't ever come to blows," she said, "but it did get verbal and hurtful."

That incident, plus the suicide of a student last spring, prompted Bailey and her staff to take a number of steps aimed at fostering inclusivity at Corner Canyon.

The school launched a Hope Squad program, an anti-bullying and suicide-prevention effort that relies on student mentors. Corner Canyon also encourages the use of the SafeUt app, a crisis line for Utah schools.

Stacey said there is no excuse for beating someone because of differing views on sexuality.

He said members of his church have room to grow on issues of tolerance, and it's important not to dismiss or vilify someone because they're different.

"I would love to say that I've never been guilty of that myself, but I suspect we all do that," he said. "We all put people we don't know, that we don't understand, in a box."

bwood@sltrib.com Twitter: @bjaminwood

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