Focus

Let Kids Spread the Message of Tolerance

SCHOOL CULTURE by FRANK A. TASSONE


If you arrived in your office one morning and the first message of the day was that someone had scrawled graffiti containing racial or ethnic epithets on a wall of one of your schools, what would your reaction be?

The principal probably would call the police, launch an investigation to identify the culprit and communicate in some way with the student body to express the school's intolerance for such behavior. As the superintendent, you probably would notify the school board and devise a strategy for letting parents and community members know what had happened and that the school district was dealing with the situation promptly and decisively, perhaps calling a special public meeting.

Unfortunately, all of these actions are a case of locking the barn door after the horse is already out. As an educational administrator, what you really want to do is prevent such an incident from happening in the first place.

A Wider Reach
Though no school is immune to the prejudices of the people who comprise its larger community, Roslyn High School, an 800-student campus in suburban New York whose racial, ethnic and religious composition is increasingly diverse, has not experienced a single, overt bias-related incident in many years. A primary reason is that the school instituted a prejudice-reduction project six years ago that reaches beyond the confines of the high school into all five schools in our K-12 district.

The program is called the Principal's Advisory Council on Multicultural Concerns. It involves a group of student volunteers who are committed to reducing the levels of prejudice in their school and community. Created by the school's principal, Jayson S. Stoller, the council's goal is simple: Youngsters teach other youngsters about the tragic effects that stereotyping and prejudice can have on their lives.

The principal brought the idea for this no-cost, child-centered effort from another high school where he had worked. It has taken root in Roslyn, where as many as 60 students have participated annually. Its success is based on the fact that a message of tolerance coming from other students hits home with others much more forcefully, if organized properly, than any lecture on prejudice delivered by adults.

First, the students in the council are sensitized to the issues by attending training based on the nationally recognized A World of Difference program. The group is educated about how prejudice and stereotypes are perpetuated in society, how they lead to discrimination and violence and how to confront prejudice effectively. The students then work with a faculty adviser to create presentations through which they disseminate the important lessons they have learned to their peers and especially to younger students.

On the elementary level, a small group of council members elicit responses from students in elementary classes about issues that hurt them in the course of everyday experience. The younger children's descriptions of hurtful episodes invariably go beyond race and ethnicity to the ways in which youngsters feel discriminated against because of such factors as gender, disability or personal appearance.

Interactive Scenarios
The heightened awareness and sensitivity engendered by these sessions are clearly in evidence when the Council takes its message to middle school youngsters. The high school students perform an interactive drama to a large body of 7th- and 8th-graders, depicting real-life scenes in which prejudices are plainly exhibited. In one, an interracial couple in a restaurant encounters a series of discriminatory attitudes. In another, a student's lost wallet leads to harmful speculation about who may be responsible and threatens to become a major incident.

The response of the middle school youngsters is nothing short of astonishing. Prejudices that are clearly exaggerated to an adult eye are taken very seriously by the younger students, who become impassioned about the behavior they are witnessing--and don't hesitate to express it. After the performance, the council members remain in character for a question-and-answer session in which the "prejudiced" students try to defend--to the raucous disapproval of the middle school students, who have not yet suspended their disbelief–their indefensible words and actions.

The message is getting through.

"Now that our system has such a diverse population, it's important that children learn to get along with each other," says Phyllis Granat, a home and careers teacher at Roslyn High School who supervises the group. She readily admits that what started out as just another extracurricular job a few years has grown into a personal mission.

Along with Stoller, she has steered many of the students in the Principal's Advisory Council into a regional Anti-Bias Task Force, involving 30 students from each of several high schools. The task force has become an important consultative body in promoting education on these issues and acting as a liaison with the police in dealing with bias incidents throughout the area.

One Dramatic Result
This all takes a great deal of work and planning, but the students in the Principal's Advisory Council become very committed to it. And they see results.

Granat tells the story of a 6th-grader who hadn't spoken a word in class for the first two months of the school year. It turned out the student’s father was disabled and she was embarrassed about it and didn't know how to communicate her feelings. After seeing a council presentation in her classroom, she emerged from her silence. "Now I know I don't have to be embarrassed," she told her teacher.

The students and adults devoted to the work of the Principal's Advisory Council have no illusions about changing the world overnight, but they also know that they are truly making a difference. As Granat says, "If you can touch one student in each class, it's a lot."

Frank Tassone is superintendent, Roslyn Public Schools, Box 367, Roslyn, NY 11576. E-mail: roslynsd@li.net