The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 14, 2008

CCHS fosters tolerance of diversity

Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS) has always prided itself on the warm, welcoming community it provides, so when an act of intolerance was committed at a school dance in September, students spoke out.

A male senior from CCHS decided to attend the school’s first social event of the year with his boyfriend, who attends Acton-Boxborough High School. The two were at first hesitant, but were reassured by memories of a campaign which took place during spring of the previous school year, in which students wore buttons protesting harmful phrases like, “That’s so gay,” and showed support as “Allies.”

The school’s typically tolerant atmosphere was not as accepting that night, however. The couple were harassed by students who told them what they were doing was “wrong,” and to stop. This event upset many students and faculty members who take great pride in the school’s reputation of acceptance.

Concerned about the incident, several groups at the school took action. This included a gathering of the student body in which students and faculty who have felt discriminated against were given the opportunity to speak. CCHS Principal Peter Badalament explained, “I worked with a group of teachers and students to plan the assembly. Over a period of two weeks we got together several times to decide on what the assembly would seek to accomplish and what it would look like.”

Among the speakers was the young man who was harassed at the dance. He shared his struggles with being gay and a student at CCHS. He admitted that when the incident occurred he was more upset by the fact that the students who witnessed the harassment occurring did not defend him or his boyfriend, than by the homophobia expressed. He reminded students of the ally pins many wore back in the spring, challenging them to take on the responsibilities of being an ally.

A young woman who participates in the METCO program also spoke. METCO provides opportunities for minority students from Boston to attend suburban high schools. “I think sometimes without realizing it we don’t give each other the benefit of the doubt in recognizing the different paths we have taken to get where we are today,” She divulged her own troubles, reflecting on kindergarten as “the last time I felt fully accepted amongst all of my peers.” She continued, “In elementary school, it kind of seemed like everyone was color-blind. But then, as soon as I got to high school, that all went out the window.” She conveyed her struggles with teachers’ lower expectations and reluctance of peers to date her because of her race.

A freshman girl who has felt singled out because of her cerebral palsy followed. She emphasized repeatedly to the audience that, “Just because I sit and drive this power chair, I am really no different than you are.”

In addition, Kevin Pennucci, a CCHS science teacher, communicated his difficulties with being a gay faculty member, especially since his son attends the high school. “Students make jokes and comments such as ‘that’s so gay’ or ‘he’s such a fag.’ My son had to endure hearing those comments, sometimes from his closest friends,” he said. He reiterated, however, that the social climate at CCHS is remarkable. “The very fact that I am standing in front of all of you today speaking about my experiences coming out is a huge testament to this community. It is a very rare event to have a teacher come out to their entire school.”

The last speaker was a member of the senior class who has felt judged because of his love of sports and athletics. He revealed the hurt he has felt, being judged as someone who does not care about academics and simply viewed as “a jock.”

The assembly was received with overwhelming support from students and faculty. Badalament commented, “The assembly was incredibly powerful in that it gave students a voice to express themselves to the rest of the community. When students talk, their peers tend to listen as it’s not just an adult up there giving a speech that may or may not connect with them. I am very proud of the students who spoke at the assembly; they put themselves on the line in talking about the issues that they did.”

One student viewed it as “a very effective assembly” and felt, “C-C should address more issues with diversity.” Jennifer Benson of the science department observed, “The assembly was a positive call to action. It was a timely response to an actual occurrence at CCHS, which was extremely powerful. [It] was inclusive of many voices, and challenged allies to take action, to go beyond the important yet passive step of wearing buttons.”

The speakers themselves shared the feeling that the event was a success. “I have heard nothing but gratitude and thanks from students and faculty. The impact, from what I have heard, has been very powerful and very positive,” said Pennucci.

Though happy with the assembly overall, some students offered criticism. “I thought that the assembly was well done and was a good idea, but overall I felt it wasn’t a useful exercise because of its brevity. To be more effective it would have to be something more frequent. One assembly is not nearly enough to actually change kids’ opinions,” remarked one student. Another added, “[The assembly] could have focused more on the issues surrounding the incident that caused it.”

The high school’s Student Senate has been an advocate for celebrating diversity at CCHS. The group recently passed a resolution encouraging the administration to become more active in keeping CCHS a tolerant community, and also created a banner reading, “Unity through diversity,” which was covered with student handprints. Katharine Price, the moderator of the Senate acted as master of ceremonies for the assembly and was especially enthusiastic about the event’s impact. “The students at the assembly were completely respectful and mature, and they gave each speaker a huge round of applause. They laughed at the right moments and many were so moved by the speeches that they cried at certain points,” said Price. She continued, “I just noticed this change in the school atmosphere that, in my opinion, still hasn’t gone away.”

Price is very proud of CCHS’s ability to address such touchy issues, stating, “I think that the large majority of schools in the United States would have been too scared or too uneasy to bring issues like race, sexual orientation, and disability so out in the open. The fact that we were able to confront our issues with diversity head-on is a huge accomplishment.” ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito