About a year after State College Area School District implemented the Inclusive Excellence Policy, the high school “intolerance team” is continuing its efforts to streamline the reporting of discrimination and promote acceptance within the educational community.
The district’s policy provides a conduit for dialogue around racial, cultural and sexual orientation discrimination, but Principal Curtis Johnson wanted to take it further and organized a “breakfast club,” which included students from the various diversity clubs, teachers and school counselors.
“One of the big problems I think we have is people are afraid to have these crucial conversations with each other,” Johnson said. “They walk around on eggshells or would rather be a bystander than actually stepping up and saying something.”
The club’s early conversations focused on creating an anonymous reporting method and providing a safe place for dialogue around discrimination. The success of the discussions led to the official forming of the intolerance team at the end of the 2016-17 school year.
“We’re trying to create an avenue to address those situations, and it’s about educating and restoring the faith in what people and humanity are about and understanding the need to treat people with dignity and respect,” Johnson said.
The impetus of the district’s policy change, as well as Johnson’s desire to reform the high school’s role in handling discrimination, was a racial incident in 2015.
In October of that year, a photo taken off school grounds of two State High students wearing matching homemade T-shirts with the “N-word” went viral on social media. Johnson quickly recognized the absence of an infrastructure to handle the racial incident.
“We realized that we didn’t have an appropriate response or a response team to send out an email to our community about what to do or what we should say,” Johnson said. “We also didn’t have a process in place to deal with the situation for those particular students that was restorative or that educated the kids on how others might feel violated by what they did.”
To aid in the district’s desire for a restorative approach to handling these types of incidents, school counselors began receiving training in restorative practices, which is an emerging social science that integrates communication tools within various fields, such as psychology, sociology, criminology and social work, to design an interaction model that brings people together and improves communication.
Paul Brigman, school counselor at State High, is a member of the intolerance team, and for the past two years, he has been receiving restorative practices training from the International Institute of Restorative Practices in Bethlehem. He is also certified to teach restorative practices to faculty and students, which the district has supported and implemented.
“The goal using restorative practices is to have a team ready to be more prompt in responding to incidents when they occur and also to have more of a proactive approach to preparing faculty and training faculty how to handle these incidents as they do arise,” Brigman said.
As the school year progresses, the intolerance team will continue to develop, and Johnson said he hopes the success of the team can provide a positive example for other school districts.
“We hope to come up with a restorative process that hopefully educates people when there are incidents of bias or hatred or discrimination and helps us to work through these in a uniform way,” Johnson said. “We want to resolve these situations through education rather than ignorance.”