Finding ways to get along

Westminster High teens use SPIRIT to discuss plan for racial harmony

October 22, 2006|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,[Sun Reporter]

For two days, they gathered in a corner of the library, in classrooms and lecture halls and tried to identify and solve what they saw as their school's major issues.

Black. White. Asian. Hispanic. Biracial. The Westminster High School students ran the gamut and were selected to put issues of race and ethnicity on the table without mincing words.

"Who knows more about what goes on in this school?" a representative from the federal Department of Justice asked the 25 or so students sitting in wooden chairs in the media center. "You or your teachers?"

"We do," several replied.

The sessions were part of a program called SPIRIT - Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together. It was designed to provide students a chance to identify issues tied to race and ethnicity that they see in their schools, then develop possible remedies. The program is facilitated by an arm of the Department of Justice, called the Community Relations Service.

"Lots of times we as adults - we prescribe, we diagnose what the problems are," said Aurora Pagulayan, assistant principal at West Middle School and one of the facilitators. "We are not always on target ... . This way we're going to the grassroots of the school population."

For the first time at Westminster High last week, adults turned to students for answers. Students had the chance to share, vent and solve. The first day they divided into groups by ethnicity or race and focused on their school - the positive elements as well as the problems. The second, they split into mixed groups that zeroed in on solutions.

After some prodding, revelations and insights poured from their lips: Teachers ignored name-calling; the staff - and student body - lacked diversity; student stereotypes prevailed.

For some, the first day's groups alone highlighted fault lines.

"Where do I go?" asked Shennica McCarthy, a 16-year-old junior who has a black father and white mother.

"Where would you like to go?" the facilitator asked. "Where do you identify?"

"Black and white," Shennica replied, before choosing to head out with black classmates.

For Philip Gonzales, 17, a tall senior with a black mother and paternal grandparents from Spain and Mexico, the choice was easier: He leaned to his Latin roots, he said, because he knew the black students would have a strong enough contingent without him.

Their problem became one of several issues students brainstormed during their session: the tendency to make blanket assumptions about minority students based on appearance.

"If your skin color's white, they think you're white. If your skin color's black, they think you're black. If your skin color's mixed, they think you're Mexican," said Jason Sandoval, 15, whose family comes from Guatemala.

"Why do you guys not talk about ethnicity?" Pagulayan asked.

"They don't ask," said Juan Cortez, 17, a Salvadoran in the group.

"It might give them something else to not like," Philip added.

As her group presented its issues, Shennica noted the particular stereotypes black students encounter.

"None of us carry guns or knives. We don't want to stab you," she said. "We're not all ignorant, violent people."

But the second day, the students moved beyond venting. They developed a battery of solutions: Organize assemblies and advisory periods for multicultural lessons. Form a cultural club. Address teachers who ignore racial slurs. Pair new students with ethnically similar ones to smooth their transition into the school.

"How would you solicit or go out to get more diverse teachers?" a Justice Department representative asked his group.

"I would, as a student, tell them how we need them," said Ariel Maclin, 16, a junior. She'd write a song, she said, joking in part: "We need you, we need you, help, help, please help."

Similar sessions have been held at other county schools, Pagulayan said, including West Middle and Liberty High. Oklahoma Road Middle School pupils will be introduced to SPIRIT next week.

Pagulayan said she hopes to see a student advisory group with staying power at Westminster and other schools that have gone through SPIRIT. A follow-up from the administration is key to ensure the words spoken within library walls transform into action and, eventually, visible change, she said.

Senior Christina Carvin, 17, questioned the effectiveness of their solutions if they were only implemented in school, and the same values were not reinforced by parents. But she thinks the cultural club could work, if it didn't flounder as other clubs do.

Many of her classmates expressed optimism "It didn't seem like it was going to matter," said Jillian Malbrough, 16. But now, "I think we'll be able to make a big difference, " said Jillian Malbrough.

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