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Not In Our School training captures groups’ capacity to grow together

BILLINGS, June 23, 2014 – Our calling toward our creative potential demands that we work well with others. No one does that perfectly, or else the world’s problems would’ve been solved long ago.

The stumbling block comes when our mentors don’t treat everyone as a worthy individual, according to a Not In Our School (NIOS) leadership training held June 20 at Rocky Mountain College. About 25 professionals reinforced best practices to increase tolerance and decrease bullying in schools and communities. Eran Thompson of Not In Our Town-Billings (NIOT) reminded attendees from across the nation of his favorite Martin Luther King quote: “Peace is not the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” 

“We’ve all grown up in this dirty fish tank of racism,” said Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas, director of Not In Our School, who has twice briefed President Obama’s education staff at the White House on building acceptance of individuals in schools. When she was curriculum director for the Palo Alto, Calif., school district, her community said, “We’re a very liberal, progressive community. We don’t need this.”

“Then the students started talking,” said Cohn-Vargas; “then two students were harassed.” 

As a preliminary meeting to the national Not In Our Town conference in Billings, the meeting brought together community leaders in children’s services from around the nation, including a school principal, teacher and student trailblazers, a victim witness coordinator, mental health specialists, a state civil rights attorney, and an assistant attorney general. 

Sharing a voice with the voiceless engenders strong emotions, both in people with and without social power. Teens and children feel emotions intensely, but they aren’t born with the maturity to prevent others’ lack of tolerance from affecting their self-perception, to know all things will pass. 

“Students are more equitable, available, and malleable than adults,” said a lawyer attending the gathering. “When they’re negative, they’re reflecting it [adults’ poor role modeling] back to us.” 

“When a kid is told ‘you’re not who you think you are, you are who I say you are,’ that identity theft is like being hit in the head with a rock,” said Moses Robinson of Rochester, N.Y., a school resource officer and 28-year police officer.

The NIOS training works to create identity-safe schools, where a person’s social identification is an asset rather than a barrier to success. The meeting resounded with stories of successes.

Matt Grant, a principal in Olympia, Wash., told the journey of a boy who had no access to a shower, was made fun of, became a bully, and then learned to describe his pain to the assembled school. The incident ended with 400 high school hands stuck in a heart shape. “We depend on these people who used to say nothing,” he said, “then learn to articulate their self-worth; then they graduate, and we need to strengthen all over again.” 

NIOS teaches schools how to stand together for safety, inclusion, and acceptance. Best practices include involving students in defining bullying, dissolving stereotypes, effective intervening in hurtful situations, creating “upstanders” from bystanders, and lots of role-playing.

Trina Ritter, coordinator for a Quincy, Calif., crisis center that works in her local schools, teaches students tai chi for its principles of self-centering. “I didn’t realize I had inner peace,” her pupils say. 

Rocky Mountain College focuses on cultivating informed citizenship in the school mission. RMC policy mandates restorative justice – use of consequences that engage and counsel – if people occasionally do not treat one another as well as they might. Student government and staff sponsor Stand Up RMC, a forum for the campus to engage respect and wellness issues. 

Curt Boehm, a general manager of Sodexho in charge of dining services at the College, donated lunch to participants and listened through the day. Since 2010, he has worked on the Champions of Diversity subcommittee of a Cross Market Diversity Council set up by his corporation of 128,000 employees. “Immersing ourselves in diverse cultures, in staff, and in our management team has made us better operationally and financially,” he said. “Everybody in the world’s been a witness, a victim, or a part of [bullying],” he said. “It creates a passion to make change.”