Thursday, April 22, 2010

West teaches tolerance

Cranston Herald
April 22, 2010
All text and photos by Jen Cowart

Just weeks after nine high school students in Boston were charged with criminal harassment that allegedly prompted the suicide of a classmate, the students at Cranston High School West tackled the difficult and often uncomfortable subject of bullying.

From April 6-9, the school hosted Diversity Awareness Week 2010, with a theme of “Names Can Hurt Us” that addressed bullying and encouraged tolerance for diversity.

The event was no small undertaking.

Last year, students Mirvene Azor and Esther Borgelin approached Principal Steve Knowlton about starting a diversity program at the school. Knowlton agreed, and Assistant Principal Dr. Jackie Striano took the task and ran with it. A new Diversity Team was created, with Azor and Borgelin as the chairpersons.

With the help of Striano, the pair didn’t waste any time coming up with activities, speakers and events that would take place during Diversity Awareness Week.

“We want the students to know that the names you call each other can hurt people. The students and staff from all parts of the curriculum and academic courses will contribute and participate,” Striano said.

Azor added that each ethnic group at West was represented and recognized during the week in a variety of ways. For example, different ethnic foods were sampled throughout the week.

Borgelin noted that this was the first year for such an event, and she had high hopes for being able to repeat the program in future years and at other schools in the Cranston community as well.

“It’s something new and at first people may not buy into it; our goal is to tie in tolerance and respect even if you don’t agree with it,” Borgelin said. “We are lucky to live in a community that is striving for tolerance and respect.”

Despite a monkeywrench being thrown into their plans with the flooding that closed school three days during the week prior to the big event, West’s Diversity Week kicked off on time with a VIP viewing of a multimedia assembly that was presented to every grade on Tuesday.

Guests from within the Cranston community were invited to view the show, which took place in an auditorium decorated with flags from different nations. Guests included the Cranston Public Schools Central Office staff and members of the executive team, members of the Cranston School Committee, faculty and staff from Cranston High School West and other Cranston Schools, Mayor Allan Fung, and the more than 30 Diversity Team student leaders. Both Stephanie Culhane and Andrea Ianozzi from the Cranston School Committee were involved as team leaders and panel speakers for the week.

The assembly featured opening remarks from both Principal Knowlton and Dr. Striano, as well as from Borgelin and Azor. Additionally, there was a film presentation, entitled “I Am Cranston West,” featuring the many faces of the students who attend the school. Bullying scenarios were played out on stage in the drama club’s performance of “The High School Experience.”

Actors asked the audience three questions at the end: “Who are you? Who have you been? Who will you leave this auditorium as?”

As the performance came to a close, the audience rose to its feet for a standing ovation.

Following the presentation, five West students spoke to the audience, telling their stories and experiences about being bullied, witnessing bullying or how they are helping to end the epidemic.

“I’m a kid who used to make fun of people,” said Shane Patrick, the first speaker. “I wish you could look a few years ahead to when these things [differences] don’t matter.”

Patrick then offered out some advice to the rest of the students in the audience.

“Don’t go through your four years here being remembered as the bully,” he said, hoping others could learn from his mistakes. Patrick then apologized to all those he’d bullied in the past, before returning to his seat.

Student speakers were followed up with musical performances from the student band Third Cut, which sang “Be Yourself,” and the CHSW choir singing Douglas Wayne’s “With One Song,” whose signature line was “Together we’ll build a better world.”

The emotional assembly ended with an open forum. At first, audience members were hesitant to speak, but one-by-one people began to come forward.

Mayor Allan Fung was among the first to rise and give the students his praise. “Two words: Fantastic job,” said Fung.

“I’ve gone through [bullying], every adult here has gone through it. We’ve all gone through it, but one student put it best: in a couple of years, it’s not going to matter,” the mayor said, referring to Shane Patrick’s earlier remarks.

Fung was later with panel speakers during one of more than 20 Diversity Week seminars. Fung shared his experiences as a Chinese American and offered the students tips on positive leadership. School Committee member Stephanie Culhane, who was a Diversity Team Leader, stepped forward as well.

“I am so proud to represent all of you on the School Committee,” she said. “I was bullied when I was a kid. People said, ‘Oh it just happens,’ but it doesn’t have to happen.”

Other speakers that evening included Channel 12 reporter Nneka Nwosu and Nancy Kattan, both of who participated in later seminars.

Nwosu is of Nigerian heritage and discussed her personal triumphs in breaking social barriers, while Kattan, who holds a master’s in social work and is also a parent at West, addressed the misconceptions of Islam and her Muslim religion.

“Until I put this on, I look just like all of you,” Kattan said, referencing her Muslim head covering.

She fought back tears as she told the students that she still endures targeting, exclusionary behavior and bullying because of her religious beliefs, even as an adult.

At the conclusion of the assembly, the audience was given the opportunity to view the displays on diversity and bullying that lined the hallways while they listened to an orchestra concert directed by Christine Harrington.

CACTC provided refreshments for the evening’s events.

Dr. Striano said she was pleased with the success of the first annual Diversity Week at Cranston West.

“As a whole, Diversity Week was the result of an incredible initiative that students and teachers at West brought to fruition,” said Striano.

When asked to identify a highlight, Striano struggled. For her, the positive effects of the event will be felt for a long time to come.

“It could be the senior boy who addressed his entire class and apologized to a young woman he routinely harassed, or the teenager who pledged to never call someone ‘retarded’ again. But, moreover, I think that the success of the week was the sense of empowerment that permeated the school,” she said. “In troubled times when such negativity surrounds education, these students and their teachers really set a standard for excellence and made a tremendous impact upon their peers.”

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