Starting in kindergarten, Champlain educators teach about diversity, equality, and the right for everyone to learn. Our motto, “Be Safe, Be Respectful, and Be Responsible,” allows all to thrive academically and socially. Yet we inherit inequalities that are hard to understand and block out. For example, a student had teased another for his clothing. In a moving conversation, her parent admonished, “That’s not her fault. Maybe her parents can’t afford anything else. You can’t make fun of people for things they can do nothing about.” Another time a parent questioned his child, “If you talk to teachers like this, of course they’ll be mad at you! Why would you deserve respect when you don’t show it?” At times like these, students are 100% present. Meeting with the parent and principal together was not in mind when they made less-than-best choices.
Peer mediation (PM) allows students to facilitate and support moving conversations outside of class. Those in conflict have learned to trust the process of talking, listening, and problem solving, as if walking across a bridge back to friendship. A student too embarrassed or distressed to talk with peers can be very moving. The facilitators and I describe PM, predicting a positive outcome. “If you don’t tell what happened, we can never know your point of view,” a peer might say. “We’re all being affected by this, and that’s not fair. We all want to put this behind us.”
Since April, a staff-member of Spectrum Vermont has begun working with Champlain students. Yuol Herjok Yuol (BHS and Lyndon State alum) mentors a student group by meeting once a week and discussing issues that matter to them. Our school counselor Greg Kriger and many teachers host similar groups (oftentimes called Lunch Bunch) to strengthen connections and improve their experience at Champlain. One of the most challenging topics brought up is race. Our students learn about the equality of all people and the importance of cultural competency. Nevertheless the outside world of demeaning stereotypes and epithets trickle in. In our school community, students have found space to explore these issues. For example, in a fit of anger, students of any ethnic background might shout fighting words that divide people by race. They know these words, soaked in meaning and history, instantly grab all attention. Some statements are crueler than others and require different responses from the principal, based on Burlington’s Harassment, Hazing, and Bullying Prevention Policy F29. Oftentimes a moving conversation is needed instead. In every case, the student goes to the principal’s office right away. I call parents, and we all talk together. Every time, the parent’s words make a huge impact and the tears come. The student can’t explain why such terrible words came from her/his mouth, but s/he is full of regret and wants to apologize to whomever had heard.
One time a student did not accept the other’s apology. He said to his classmate, “I need to see your apology in your actions, not your words.” That gave the harmer much to think about, and we talked about kindness and respect for differences. Afterwards the harmed student and I debriefed the conversation. “Your classmate will remember your words for a lifetime. You made a huge impact, and we can expect positive changes for now on.” We had all been moved by this conversation.
This is among our toughest work as educators. This was not a theory or storybook about “stars upon thars.” This practice could only happen in an ethnically-diverse school, where educators show sensitivity and tenacity to directly face problems. This was the real life of children grappling with America’s painful legacy and practicing ways to change their world.