(Host) Close to six hundred junior and senior high school students from all over Vermont will be in Castleton today taking part in a unique daylong conference promoting diversity and tolerance.
As VPR’s Nina Keck reports, the statewide summit on safe schools was planned and is being run almost entirely by kids.
(Teacher) “Steven, you can do it.”
(Keck) It’s nearly eight o’clock on a recent Monday night, but Jerry Kreitzer s classroom is full of students. Kreitzer teaches communication, current issues and leadership at Rutland High School. He and his wife Patricia also run summer training workshops to fight bullying and promote tolerance in schools. A year or so ago, Kreitzer says Vermont’s Department of Education approached him and his wife about organizing a much larger, statewide workshop – run by and for kids.
(Kreitzer) “Adults can say whatever they want and the culture doesn’t really change. The only way we’re really going to change the culture is to have students talking to students.”
(Keck) To find enough young people able to take on such a project, Kreitzer and his wife began reaching out to student leadership organizations all across Vermont. Seventeen-year-old Jane Richards, a senior at Rutland High School, has been involved since the beginning, meeting with eighteen other students every other Tuesday in Berlin, Vermont to plan and shape the conference.
(Richards) “When we first started this, we weren’t sure that we were going to get enough schools. And we went from having 37 students participating to having over 500. And I think it’s just amazing and the response that we’ve had to this. I think it’s going to be more amazing when you get there and you see all the kids.”
(Keck) Because so many schools signed up, Richards says they’ve had to train additional high school students to act as facilitators. That’s what she and several other team leaders were doing this past Monday night in Jerry Kreitzer’s classroom.
(Richards) “This is a really fun workshop. You’re going to split your group up into a group of boys and a group of girls. And what you’re going to have each group do is come up with a list of stereotypes. The girls are going to do stereotypes about the boys – don’t ask for directions or macho men, things like that. The boys are also going to be doing this about girls.”
(Keck) Once the lists are made, the kids are then asked to discuss the stereotypes one by one. In another exercise, male and female students are asked to sit across from each other. Statements and questions are read and students are asked to quietly stand for a moment if the words apply to them. One might ask students if they’ve ever covered their feelings or hidden their pain. Another might ask if they’ve ever been ashamed because they’ve been part of a group which talked about or treated a member of the opposite sex in a derogatory way.
(Pierce) “I was astounded by how powerful it was. And like the room was quiet and there was only one person talking – the person saying the questions and everybody else was just like it was just dead silent in the room.”
(Keck) Brad Pierce is a senior at Rutland High School and one of more than 80 student facilitators who’ll be leading today’s conference. He and classmate Jane Richards say exercises like these push kids beyond their comfort levels.
(Pierce) “I think it lets people know what is out there and like it really shows people what can be going on. Cuz I think people might not be aware of some of the issues and what some people are hiding or may have gone through.”
(Richards) “You’re just putting yourself out there when you stand up and respond to the questions and it’s kind of shocking to see, as a woman the number of other women who stand up with you. And on the other side, when the males stand up – some of the questions – I’m just like, wow, I never thought a guy would go through that.'”
(Keck) Imagine the difference today’s conference can make, says Richards, if 600 more kids start to think that way.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.