Copquin: Teaching tolerance in school, life
In 2006, when my twin sisters were graduating from Northport High School, it seemed as though everyone -- from parents to national news anchors -- was talking about two seniors who quoted Hitler in the yearbook. The controversy seemed to overshadow the achievements of the graduating class.
Now that I am graduating from the same school, I have a bad feeling of déjà vu. The school is being sued for allegedly not taking enough action when a student reported that he was being repeatedly bullied by students using anti-Semitic slurs.
The idea that a freshman left the high school because he felt he was being tormented is very upsetting. It's been well reported that bullying is a national problem; some teens even commit suicide over it. Albany passed an anti-bullying law in 2010, and it's great that lawmakers are poised to pass an anti-cyberbullying law this session. But the lawsuit indicates this wasn't just a case of bullying -- it was also a case of anti-Semitism. A district lawyer did not call back when I called to get comment on the lawsuit.
My own high school experience was positive. A highlight was my involvement in United Students of Northport, a club whose members brainstorm and act as liaisons between students and the administration to implement the new ideas. In one case, we proposed a mentoring program between upperclassmen and freshmen. The principal really liked the idea, but somehow it never happened. I learned that a good idea sometimes isn't enough. Follow-through is needed to get a program off the ground.
News about alleged events of the lawsuit in Northport inspired me to recall lessons from United Students and think about new ways to tackle an old problem.
My school should change the way it handles bullying, harassment and intolerance. In the beginning of this school year, students attended an assembly on these subjects. It was the usual format -- someone gave a speech, followed by bullet-point recaps on an overhead screen. I saw students texting, doing homework and joking. In other words, nobody was paying attention, including me.
That's probably because, since elementary school, we've had many assemblies. Drug and alcohol abuse has been a frequent topic. So over the years, we've become immune to these presentations. It's even possible that the school has held more than one tolerance assembly, but honestly, I don't remember. Which means they did not have the intended impact.
But there are better ways to reach students so that they become more tolerant of one another's differences, so they stop judging and labeling one another and begin to feel compassion.
One example is "Challenge Day," a program that actively involves students, so they have to connect face to face.
In one exercise, students in small groups are told to reveal something personal. They must begin by stating, "If you really knew me . . ." Another exercise involves a training leader asking students to cross over a line on the floor if they've ever experienced bullying, harassment, violence, depression, humiliation, fear.
The list goes on until most of students have crossed over -- which shows that everyone has had to deal with painful situations at one time or another.
The goal of this day is to show how you can really know someone if you just look past things like shoes, hairstyle or religion. Strangers become friends.
Commack High School, Huntington High School and others on Long Island have already hosted this program. It left an impression, because my friends at these schools have talked about it. Northport High School should follow suit.
Maybe then, kids who are narrow-minded toward unfamiliar religions or cultures might look past differences. They might even come to appreciate them, so future graduation ceremonies won't be overshadowed by ugly incidents. Instead, they'll be able to truly celebrate everything they've learned.
Allison Tess Copquin, a senior at Northport High School, will be attending Ithaca College in the fall.