April 20, 2019

School teams try to shape attitudes

WINTERPORT – Thirteen-year-old Jessica Gray recalls the time some friends were joking around at school:

“This kid said, ‘Jessica’s built just like a Barbie … Oh, wait, except Jessica’s fat.'” For the record, although she’s probably impatient for her adolescent body to start assuming the sleek contours some of her peers have developed, she’s not fat. And she seems like a sensible and resilient girl. Still, the boy’s comment stung, and it lingers in her mind.

“People say things like that and they think they’re just joking or being funny,” she said. “But even if you know they’re making a joke, you still hear the words like they were serious.”

Jessica is one of 11 pupils serving this year on the civil rights team at Winterport’s Samuel L. Wagner Middle School. A survey at the beginning of the school year revealed that name-calling and teasing were a problem; pupils were being harassed, sometimes severely, for their body types, for wearing glasses, for where they lived or bought their clothes. Gossip was endemic.

Although these issues were comparatively mild, the team decided to try to raise awareness and change behaviors.

“We just want to make [pupils] aware of how they hurt other people,” said Jessica. “They need to understand how many people are hurting each other.”

Hurtful comments, mean-spirited teasing, name-calling and verbal harassment are rife in middle schools, so much a part of the educational landscape that many adults assume it’s just part of the early adolescent process and simply wait for the storm of meanness to pass. But too often, name-calling escalates to severe verbal assault and physical bullying – and, occasionally, to serious personal violence or property damage.

Violence, threats of violence or property damage based on bias against another person’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, physical or mental disability or sexual orientation are a violation of Maine’s 1993 Civil Rights Act, and Maine’s Office of the Attorney General is looking to nip the problem in the bud.

Since 1993, with funding from the federal Department of Justice, the Attorney General’s Office has supported in-school civil rights teams like the one in Winterport. Almost 200 Maine schools now offer the program to kindergartners right on up to 12th-graders.

Student teams, led by faculty advisers, attend two daylong training sessions each year, learning to model tolerant behaviors, to identify problematic relationships, to intervene effectively in difficult interactions and to cultivate openness in the thinking of their peers.

At a recent regional conference in Caribou, the schedule included break-out workshop electives with titles such as “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” and “I Can’t Hear You: Dealing with Hearing Impairment.” Students had an opportunity to talk with Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe, to investigate a crime scene with state Detective Margie Berkovich, to explore notions of “the enemy” or to write a civil rights song.

“Some segments of our society have become less tolerant since the terror attacks of 2001,” said Darylen Cote, regional coordinator for northern Maine. Reports of hate crimes are up, she said, and the average age of perpetrators is dropping. Schools are the best place to begin a program of respect and tolerance, and the younger the better.

While many of the behaviors of schoolchildren don’t rise to the level of a hate crime, “bias incidents” often escalate, sometimes quickly, sometimes over years, Cote said. “By the time some of these stories come to light,” she said, “it’s clear that the harassment has been going on for a long while.”

In-school activities vary from team to team, depending on the situation. Key to a team’s success, according to Cote, is allowing the students to lead. “We think kids have the answers,” she said.

Common activities include maintaining a bulletin board, reading a related poem or quote during morning announcements, installing an anonymous “concerns” box, and posting a map for students to diagram where they’ve observed harassment taking place – restrooms, stairwells and school buses are common hot spots.

Others offer videos, sponsor dances, bring in speakers from the community and stage schoolwide “diversity days.” Some teams have succeeded in having surveillance cameras placed on buses.

What happens when a family’s beliefs are in conflict with the tolerant philosophy of the civil rights team?

“We’ve had some negative feedback from parents,” said Cote. “We tell them ‘You can teach what you want at home, but at school it’s not OK.’ Our job is to create a safe school climate for all students, so kids can learn.”

The girls on the Wagner School team – regrettably, boys are less likely to join up, especially as they get older – showed a video about civil rights hero Rosa Parks in honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday, and they’re planning a schoolwide trivia contest for Black History Month.

Faculty co-advisers Cindy Moran and Sharon Baker said current events play a role in the group’s concerns. Last month’s Lewiston rally in support of Somali immigrants, for example, provided food for serious discussion.

“They were really unaware of what was going on right here in Maine,” said Baker of the team members. “It’s too bad we couldn’t have had the same conversation with the whole school.”

Moran said it was eye-opening to the team to imagine moving somewhere and being told “We don’t want you living here, because you come from Winterport, Maine.”

For information on Civil Rights Team Project, call the Office of the Attorney General, 626-8800, or visit www.maine.gov/ag/civilrights.html.

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