BREWER – As members of their schools’ civil rights teams, students are expected to demonstrate good citizenship and take a stand against hate and intolerance.
Thanks to a training session held Tuesday, more than 300 young activists got a clearer picture of the responsibilities involved with being role models.
“You’ve got to speak up,” said Meghan McDunnah, 9, a fourth-grader at Connors Emerson School in Bar Harbor, one of 21 schools represented at the Brewer Auditorium event.
“I don’t remember what bullies said to me, but I remember how my friends didn’t care,” she said.Sponsored by the Maine Attorney General’s Office, the annual event for regional elementary, middle and high school students lasted the better part of a day and included discussions, games and other activities. The youngsters were selected either by their peers or their schools or they volunteered themselves to be a civil rights team.
Assistant Attorney General Thom Harnett urged everyone to do their part to promote fairness and equality, pointing out that it doesn’t take a lot of people to improve a school’s climate.
“It’s one person speaking up for what is right that makes up for the thousand who remain silent,” he said.
Christine Clark, 9, a Newport Elementary School fourth-grader, said Tuesday morning that she already had gained some important information.
“You should really get to know people before you judge them,” she said.
Brock Frye, 10, a fourth-grader from Mountain View School in Sullivan, said the event reinforced for him the idea that appearances don’t count.
“It just matters what’s inside of you,” he said.
Students also discussed during the conference what they were doing at their particular schools to help everyone feel safe and welcome.
Most cases of civil rights violations don’t start out with violence but with hurtful words, according to Harnett. “Comments hurt as much as a fist,” he said.
For many victims of hurtful language, being the target of an act of violence may bring a sense of relief.
“Now they know that someone will have to deal with it – [school officials] can ignore the language, but not the blood,” he said.
In one activity on Tuesday, high school students reviewed actual hate crimes in Maine and determined whether witnesses had intervened.
“The key is getting kids not to be bystanders, but to speak up,” Peter Rees, Down East Maine regional coordinator for the civil rights team project, said during the activity.
Jake Tallman, 17, a senior at Lee Academy, said later that he had learned about how to “get kids motivated to take action” against prejudice.
“You need to make people aware of how blind and ridiculous they are being,” he said after the activity session.
Derek Stacey, 17, another Lee Academy senior, said it was vital to “make a stand before things get physical.”
Jodi Cox, 15, a student at Shead High School in Eastport, said she never realized the extent of the harassment. “There’s a lot more going on in Maine than we ever thought,” she said.
Downstairs, middle school pupils watched clips from movies depicting people who were dwarfs, autistic or severely obese.
Students on civil rights teams need to feel comfortable dealing with “emotionally charged” issues and discussing topics that are bound to elicit discomfort, said Sherri Mitchell, another regional coordinator.
After watching the heartbreaking scenes, pupils agreed that staring at people with physical and mental disabilities was wrong because it made them feel bad.
“It’s OK if you have a disability,” Jacqui Cormier, 12, a seventh-grader at Mountain View School, said. “Everyone deserves to be treated equally.”
Amy Homans, a former assistant attorney general who once prosecuted civil rights violations and is now part of the school project, said educating young children about intolerance can make schools safe for everyone.
“They’re like little seeds of civil rights,” she said.