(Host) More than 1,600 incidents of school-based harassment were reported in Vermont in 2002. Most had to do with students’ race, gender or sexual identity. A pilot program to prevent bullying is now underway at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, and as VPR’s Nina Keck reports, the program seems to be working.
(Keck) It’s noon and the cafeteria at Champlain Valley Union High School is buzzing with students. Nearly all are white. Students say racism is not a big issue here. In this central Vermont school, they say sexual orientation, religion, and perhaps most importantly, how much money one’s parents make play a much bigger role in defining one’s place in school. Senior Darif Krasnow:
(Krasnow) “It effects where you go in the building when you have free time, it affects what table you sit at in the cafeteria and who you talk to and where you sit in class. It affects every aspect of being in school.”
(Keck) He says this unofficial caste system makes it hard to build unity in school.
(Krasnow) “I think everyone knows where they stand. Do you have a lot of money? Are you poor? Are you middle class? I mean, unfortunately, it’s broken up pretty clearly.”
(Keck) But Krasnow has been working hard to change that. Three years ago he and 25 of his classmates received 18 hours of diversity training. It was part of a pilot program sponsored by the Vermont Department of Education and the Vermont Institutes. Darif’s aunt, Jane Krasnow, is a guidance counselor at Champlain Valley Union High School. She says teachers and administrators also took part.
(Jane Krasnow) “What we try to do in this program is look at all the different ways that people might be different. We look at racism, heterosexism, we look at ageism. What are the differences between students and teachers and freshman and seniors and classism and all of the different ways people can be different? And then talk about how can you accept people who are different and make them feel comfortable.”
(Keck) As part of the program, incoming freshman attend four 45-minute workshops that address issues like bullying, racism, gender identity and classism. One key to the program’s success, organizers say, is having students, not teachers lead the workshops.
(Darif Krasnow) “I think it was easier for the majority of the freshman to listen to a senior rather than an adult walking into the room. I think they look up to the upper classmen to lead by example.”
(Keck) Darif Krasnow and fellow seniors Paula Flash and Hannah Nichols have been leading these workshops for two years. On this particular morning, they’re working with about 20 ninth graders.
(Darif Krasnow) “One activity which is particularly effective is the ‘Here I Stand’ activity, where we put two signs in the room. One says agree and the other says disagree.”
(Sound of a workshop) “Okay, the middle of the room is sort of neutral territory and then basically this is your scale: agree is on this side of the room, and disagree is on that side. And so depending on how you feel about a particular statement, you move around and make your own individual decisions. I know that’s hard sometimes when your friends are different than you are.” (Facilitator reads statements during the activity) “Interracial dating is a good idea. I have dated outside my race.”
(Keck) The students move from one side of the room to the other – some hesitantly, others more surely.
(Facilitator continues) “I have prejudices…”
(Keck) There are about ten statements in all. Some provoke uncomfortable silence, while others cause giggles. Later when the students are sitting in a circle, they talk things over. Freshman Jordan Berger:
(Berger) “Race issues aren’t so much an issue at CVU, but like, as we enter the university and work force level, race will be a much bigger issue. Like, a much bigger issue and since we learned in high school to accept it, it’ll help in the future.”
(Brian Brezee) “I’m Brian Brezee and I have to say that I disagree with Jordan about race not being an issue. Because even after the diversity training, I still hear racist terms, derogatory terms towards gay and lesbians and racists jokes and gay jokes constantly told. And even though the diversity program has raised awareness about it, I still don’t see complete effectiveness. What could help that even more? I’m not sure, probably doing it even earlier. If you get to them while they’re young, you won’t have the offensive language built into their vocabulary.”
(Keck) The seniors gently push the group on some issues. How many of you have, asks one, have reached out to a student who was sitting alone in the cafeteria? How many of you have spoken out when you’ve heard a derogatory joke or comment? Senior Hannah Nichols says at first, the freshman often feel shy and uncomfortable. But over time, she says they open up and what they share is powerful.
(Nichols) “It’s nice to get that connection with underclassmen because you just get more a community feel that even though they’re new, this is their community too and they can really make a difference.”
(Keck) Near the end of the workshop, freshman Ian Early is asked whether or not the program has helped.
(Early) “I think it makes a difference because I think it changes the way you look at things and makes you more aware of what’s going on. You can’t ignore issues if you want them to stop. You have to stop them yourself.”
(Keck) According to an evaluation done by Columbia University Teacher’s College, students who took part in this sort of peer training program reported an 86 percent increase in their awareness of their own biases as well as the prejudices that exist in their schools. And 80 percent said they had better skills to confront those biases. Senior Paula Flash says she still sees occasional incidents of bullying and name calling at CVU, but it’s happening less often. And she says students are more sensitive.
(Flash) “I think once you have the tools and find out how to stop it, they’ll actually go to the next level. It doesn’t matter who they’re stopping, just that they’ll go up to the person and say, ‘I feel really uncomfortable with this, can you please not say that around these people or around me ever again?’ I’ve seen that in freshman even this year.”
(Keck) And Flash points out that those freshmen will be the role models for next year’s freshman and for the freshman after that.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.
For more information, please go to: www.vermontinstitutes.org/equity