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Respect teams enlighten students regarding societal perspectives
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 pastors lawn three 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, Pioneer Elementary hosted fourth- through 12th-grade Respect Teams from schools throughout the district May 15, 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.
Denise Ajeto, a diversity manager with Boeing, underscored how often our preconceived notions come into play by asking the students to offer their analyses of a hypothetical situation involving race-based persecution. All of the students agreed that the man in the scenario who was being harassed because of his race had been wronged, but opinions varied on which of the other characters had behaved most poorly. Some students even believed that the man who stayed silent was even more dishonorable in his actions than the man who voiced the racial slurs.
Some people have said that honor means behaving as you believe, so by not speaking out, even though he knew what was happening was wrong, it could be said that his actions were less honorable, Ajeto said. Then again, as other students have suggested, what if he was in a gang and didnt feel safe to speak out? There are a lot of things we arent told, and end up assuming from this scenario. Were presented with, and forced to evaluate, hundreds of situations like this every day.
As the students debated the examples and brainstormed ideas to foster greater cross-cultural acceptance among their peers, Arlington Mayor Margaret Larson touted the positive impact of the Respect Summit since its inception.
If you want to change the world, you have to start with the children, Larson said. Theyre learning to love and respect one another, regardless of how they look or where they come from. This program is all-encompassing, from boosting acceptance of diversity to solving bullying and harassment, and Im proud to be associated with it. Look at how well-behaved all ages of students are here.
ASD Board of Directors member Carolyn Erickson cited the benefits of the annual event to younger students especially, while crediting the year-round presence of the program with much of its influence upon the students.
I see kids at the lower levels working together more closely, Erickson said. Some of the elementary schools hold mini-summits throughout the year. This summit is simply the culmination of a years worth of events. Ive seen the kids who grew up with this program step up to become its leaders, and Id love to see what the younger kids of today will be doing with it when they get to high school.
Master Sgt. Al Moore, who serves as the Arlington High School 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 programs future.
Its very much needed, because as Arlington expands people need to know and learn how to get along and respect each others differences, said Moore, who elaborated that the AHS Respect Team is looking at bringing in Native American tribal dancers, dragon dancers to commemorate the Chinese New Year, and mariachi players for Cinco de Mayo next school year, in addition to continuing annual traditions such as the Martin Luther King Jr. march, as well as the Soul Food Sampler that made its debut this year.
Its awesome that the high schools JROTC sergeant is here, because the kids in that program are all about respect, Erickson said. Not only do they learn it, they demonstrate it on a daily basis.
While this year marked the first ASD Respect Summit for Moore, Trafton Elementary Principal Dan Larson has, like Erickson, watched students grow up with Respect Teams as part of their schools.
I have a group thats doing their second year in the program now, Larson said. We have playground supervisors, but theyre adult authority figures. When students see kids in the Respect Team, theyre seeing positive behavior modeled by non-adults as well. This program has moved well past the cross-burning that originally inspired it. Some of our younger kids are barely even aware of that event, because it didnt have as much of a direct impact on them.
After AHS Respect Team senior Kevin Siplin drew a standing ovation for his freestyle rap on mutual respect, AHS Respect Team junior Luke Passalacqua reflected on his own time in the program.
Ive been in Respect Team ever since eighth grade at Post Middle School, Passalacqua said. I want to keep it going, to keep teaching people that those who are different are your equals, not your enemies. Its been exciting to build an environment of respect, and make students feel like family. I want to tear down the walls that separate people, so that they can see each others inner selves. I hope this program brings our schools closer together and continues on after Im gone.