Loner. Nerd. Jock. Freak.
These are the types of labels the Sweetwater Union High School District is attempting to combat through educational student conferences.
At an event at Southwest High School last Thursday, students participated in Breaking Down the Barriers, a conference to help students create a greater sense of community on their campus.
The conference was led by husband and wife team Viana and Joel Rodriguez, who partnered with the Safe School Ambassador program.
Viana and Joel are history teachers at Olympian High and Southwest High respectively.
As Safe School Ambassadors, they work with students to become advocates for anti-bullying.
Joel opened the conference by telling students how he was often bullied in high school because of his smaller stature.
“I developed a funny mouth because it was the only way to defend myself,” he said.
Senior leaders wore T-shirts that read, “It’s hard to hate someone when you know their story.”
The students, grades nine through 12, worked within small groups and were led by a senior, who directed them on team- and trust-building activities.
During the two and a half hour conference, students engaged in peer-to-peer conversation about their experiences on campus and shared personal stories of bullying and discrimination.
One part of the conference touched on the MTV show “If You Really Knew Me,” where students watched a video of similar-aged teens that discussed the labels they receive for being different.
Students then were asked to fill in the challenges they faced.
In a more personal example, students were also asked to fill in a statement.
One student wrote, “If you really knew me, you’d know that since I was little, I’ve always been bullied and made fun of,” and “…I’ve never really had anyone to talk to about my problems.”
Students were also shown an extreme example of the effects of mistreatment through a video montage of the April 1999 Columbine shooting in Colorado. It included actual footage, statistics about bullying and 911 calls.
Southwest Spanish teacher Ana Segedincev said she sees bullying occur often and that the conference is beneficial to students.
“I believe it’s going to make a change,” Segedincev said. “It also brings more integration among students and staff. This is a very powerful tool.”
Segedincev said the conference gives students the opportunity to break their silence and learn about anti-bullying efforts.
“We teach students that everyone is different and that we need to respect that,” she said.
At the event students also collaborated with the Anti-Defamation League to help break down barriers that exist on campus.
The Anti-Defamation League fights anti-Semitism and bigotry, while defending democratic ideals and protecting civil rights.
The Sweetwater Union High School District and the Anti-Defamation League have partnered for the last few years to create programs and activities for students that foster a stronger school community.
“We’ve done smaller workshops in the past but this is definitely the biggest,” Joel said. “There’s a lot of self-destructive behavior in high school. I think it’s because they (students) don’t know how to let out their emotions and tell their stories.”
Joel said it’s important to provide a platform and opportunity for students to share their issues with each other.
“A lot of times in the ninth and tenth grade when students are trying to act older, they’re still immature,” Joel said. “If we could make the school better so that people who normally don’t have someone … that other students would stand up for them. It’s understanding the concept of not always being a bystander and to support their classmates.”
At the end of the conference students were asked to evaluate their experience by writing down what they learned, what they plan to do to make their school a better place, rate how valuable the conference was and note suggestions for improvement along with any questions or comments.
One of the League’s programs, called No Place for Hate, provides educators and students with resources to ensure that anti-bias and diverse education are an integral part of the school curriculum.
In addition to Southwest High, several other schools in the district have held No Place for Hate assemblies, such as the Chula Vista Elementary School District in May 2010 where more than 80 principals, teachers, parents and students attended its completion of the first year of the initiative.
“I hope that students come out with a different way of seeing their classmates,” Joel said. “I hope that they have a better awareness with how they contribute to the (campus) climate,” Joel said. “…I want to get students to think before they act.”