Program focuses on tolerance

Liberty High students feel that SPIRIT helps in understanding differences


Sara Bearzi sees the changes that have taken root at Liberty High in Eldersburg since students started trying to be more understanding of each other's differences.

A big change has been that students no longer tease each other with slurs, said Bearzi, who graduated last month.

A less obvious difference has been the sense that students really do care about each other and are willing to do what it takes to get along.

"Most of the students are more accepting of others," she said. "Personally, I never came into a lot of the tensions or issues that other students dealt with. I was very surprised at some of the things that they shared at the very first meeting."

About a year ago, Liberty High was the first school in Carroll County to host a two-day leadership workshop called, "Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together."

More commonly known as SPIRIT, the program is a collaboration of the U.S. Department of Justice and local schools. It is aimed at increasing understanding across racial and ethnic lines to alleviate tensions among students and help them develop better relationships.

This school year, each of the county's seven high schools as well as several middle schools participated in the SPIRIT program.

At Liberty last spring, 20 students - five each were Asian-American, Hispanic, white and black - from all grade levels met with several adult facilitators for two days of workshops.

Teachers were not involved in the discussions because program organizers felt the students would more freely discuss their problems if they weren't around, said Jeremy Bair, Liberty High's school improvement team chairman and faculty adviser for SPIRIT.

On the first day, students were grouped according to their ethnicity to identify problems and on the second day, they are grouped with students of other backgrounds to develop solutions, Bair said.

"Liberty High is not the most diverse school ... ," Bair said. "We're not going to change the diversity of our school. We are what we are. This program is about building awareness."

Bair said he and Liberty Principal Florence Oliver were eager to try the SPIRIT program because they wondered "what we can do as a school to make everyone feel comfortable."

After the two-day workshop, Bair formed a team of eight students to implement the suggestions that grew out of the session. He meets with the group every other month.

The students hit the ground running with a number of the solutions that they had developed.

They created the "SPIRIT box," into which students can place anonymous comments and concerns. An academic facilitator regularly checks the box and the issues raised are taken seriously, Bair said.

"We already had a multicultural club," Bair said. "But this gave those kids [a voice] who didn't have a voice before. They had a direct connect, just them knowing they can drop a comment in the SPIRIT box."

The SPIRIT team also has held assemblies with guest speakers. For one such assembly, a sociologist addressed the students about assumptions they might make based on how a person sounds or looks.

"He starts out by pretending he has a reggae accent," Bair said. "Later, he talks to the students about the assumptions they had made about him based on his accent."

Working with teachers, the SPIRIT team created short lessons about racial tolerance that were presented during advisory periods.

The school also has posted signs that remind students not to make comments based on a person's ethnicity or race.

Bearzi said overall she thinks the SPIRIT program has been successful.

"Every now and then, you get jokes like, `That's going to be put in the SPIRIT box,'" she said. "I think the student body is more accepting of the programs that the school has on racial problems. There was one at the beginning of the year that everyone really enjoyed. When the programs are enjoyable like that, it isn't just a waste of time."

Bair said he has noticed that students are more open about discussing their concerns and resolving them in a useful way.

"Since the school has taken it so seriously, [students] are more free in coming forward with their comments," he said. "They don't hold back so much."

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