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Students learn about diversity, acceptance
ARLINGTON It started as a response to a hate crime, but the annual Respect Summit has grown far beyond its roots.
After two Arlington teens burned a cross in a local black pastor's lawn four years ago, the Arlington School District saw the need to integrate a message of mutual respect more fully into the lives of its students.
This year, the Linda Byrnes Performing Arts Center hosted fourth- through 12th-grade Respect Teams from schools throughout the district May 20, as they reviewed their accomplishments toward promoting tolerance over the course of the past school year, took part in exercises designed to enlighten them about different societal perspectives and set goals and prepared for the challenges of the next school year.
The Haller Middle School Marimba Band opened the event with music from Africa, South America and the Caribbean, as faculty band leader Joe Horsak emphasized the distinctions between inherited culture and identity.
"Your color is not your culture," said Horsak, citing Brazil as an example, since it includes Portuguese language in schools, African religions and a sizable Japanese population. "Anthropologists have declared that 'race' does not actually exist. Your culture is the language, religion, family and history that you share in common. Unless you're Native American, we all came here from somewhere else."
For AHS seniors Nick Tezak and Luke Passalacqua, this year's Respect Summit marks the end of an era. They joined fellow AHS Respect Team members Athena Galdonez and Lyndsy Clark in summarizing the history of the Respect program.
Clark explained that a fledgling Respect Team was already developing in 2003, a year before the cross-burning, but elaborated that 2004 was the year when ASD middle school and high school students in the district finally combined their efforts in the Respect program.
Galdonez cited the progress that's since been made, at AHS and in the surrounding community, and counted AHS Respect Team faculty advisor Ann Kashiwa and ASD Superintendent Linda Byrnes among their stronger supporters.
"Each generation serves a purpose in Arlington," Galdonez said. "The older generation acts as role models to influence the younger generation, who will continue to spread this positive message for generations to come."
Tezak was instrumental in coordinating the first rally and march that followed the cross-burning, which he credits with opening his eyes to lingering problems in race relations.
"We didn't think it was around, but racism is still alive," Tezak said. "We needed to step up and say that it has no place, and should have no voice, in our community. It wasn't just us in the Respect Team that put this together. We had help from people throughout the community and across the state."
Passalacqua asserted that the Respect Team's influence had a "snowball effect" in Arlington, from the school halls to the city streets.
"The ignorance began to fade," Passalacqua said. "People became aware of each other's differences and were just nicer to one another overall. It's the little things we do that make our community a better place, so my challenge is for all of you to continue our legacy, using your hearts and treating others the way you would like to be treated.
Master Sgt. Al Moore, who serves as the AHS Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps aerospace instructor, has also acted as an advisor for the AHS Respect Team, and he expressed optimism about the program's future.
"These young people were 13 and 14 years old four years ago," Moore said. "They've shown that you don't need to be in high school to start getting involved and making a difference. Some measures were already in place before the cross-burning, but some took place afterward to turn a negative into a positive."