For weeks, a group of boys have been harassing a classmate they think is gay. What began with hallway slurs eventually intensifies into threats of violence. Then one day when the student is walking alone, the boys gang up on him.
"He falls to the ground to protect himself, puts his hands over his head," Steve Wessler tells an attentive group of 35 teenage students in Lewiston, Maine. "And then his classmates start kicking him."
One of the attackers makes a sling weapon out of a heavy padlock and a bandanna. He whips it around a few times before striking the boy. The padlock smashes into the boy’s left elbow.
A prosecutor at the time of this assault, Wessler asked the emergency room doctor who treated the boy to describe the injury. "He said to think of the elbow as having imploded," Wessler says. Everything that had been attached was ripped apart. The Lewiston students grimace.
Wessler includes the gory details not to sicken his young audience, but rather to help them understand the pattern he consistently encountered in his seven years as the head hate-crimes prosecutor in the Maine Attorney General’s Office.
"When we went in and investigated a school-related case, we would invariably find out there had been a history of escalating conduct," Wessler says, "and it started with language." By the time law enforcement got involved, the scenario had already played out and the damage had been done.
Wessler left his prosecutor’s post in 1999 and formed the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence at the University of Southern Maine. The Center’s name declares its ambitious goal. But the primary tool for achieving it is strikingly simple: training young people to speak up against put-downs.
Most students who engage in name-calling or tell demeaning jokes don’t have deeply thought-out and deep-seated bias towards particular groups, Wessler says. Often, they’re just picking up on the messages they hear repeated again and again in the schools.
When peers challenge the language, it not only cuts down on the degrading messages themselves, but it also sparks classmates to challenge perceptions and stereotypes.
The program works by disrupting the pattern of thoughtless, habitual name-calling prevalent in many schools. In teaching students about the harm caused by careless words, the Center appeals to their natural sense of decency. The training empowers students to put "doing right" over peer pressure when it comes to daily interactions.
The story of the student with the smashed elbow is classic, Wessler tells the Lewiston group, because nobody challenged the assailants when they used words as weapons. By not speaking up, bystanders unwittingly embolden and encourage hate criminals to take the abuse to more serious levels.
"They think everybody thinks their prejudices are OK, because everybody remains silent," Wessler says.
The Lewiston workshop is a part of the Center’s Student Leaders Project, which aims to equip and inspire a core group of students to fight bias and prejudice in their school.
The program uses lectures, scenarios and small-group discussion to explore the problem and help students think of alternatives to the silence that conveys approval.
Challenging the culture of name-calling and teasing can be as simple as saying, "We don’t talk like that in this school" or "I don’t like that kind of talk." Or even just shaking your head or pointing a finger.
Any form of disapproval sends a dual message: It tells harassers it's not cool to call people names, and it tells the victims that someone cares. "You don't have to give a sociology lesson every time you speak up," says Betsy Sweet, the Center’s associate director.
The Right to Be Safe
In just three years, demand for the Center’s services has grown well beyond Maine. To reach an expanding national audience more effectively, the Center has joined with the Anti-Defamation League and the Leadership Conference Education Fund to form Partners Against Hate with major funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program.
The partnership holds train-the-trainer sessions around the country, pairing police officers and middle school educators to work with their local schools.
"The message that we take is that the issues we are dealing with are ultimately issues of safety," Wessler says. He finds that this priority cuts across social and philosophical lines.
"We don’t have to talk about the politics of sexual orientation or the politics of gender or income disparity. We can all focus on the one underlying proposition that everybody — regardless of political, personal, moral or religious views — can endorse: Everybody has the right to be safe."
Thom Harnett, Maine Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Education and Enforcement, concurs. "We deal with far too many kids whose high school memories are memories of being taunted and worse," he says. "Those children are being deprived of the right to an education."
Harnett’s office receives between 250 and 300 referrals of possible hate crimes a year, of which about 10 percent result in prosecutions. He applauds the Center’s focus on schools, because offenders increasingly tend to be young males.
When Maine began seriously addressing hate crimes in 1992, the typical defendants were males between the ages of 19 and 25. Today, that range is between 13 and 22.
Underscoring the safety strategy’s broad appeal, the Center has tailored its approach for juvenile detention facilities, police departments, social workers and medical personnel. All of the workshops emphasize the importance of intervening in cases of verbal harassment before they turn to physical violence.
The program for juvenile detention facilities trains workers to model the responses they want the detainees to follow. And the Center has recently begun to work with the juveniles themselves in training sessions similar to those of the Student Leaders Project.
For law enforcement officers, the Center adds a component on overcoming cultural and communication barriers that can impede investigations of harassment and hate crimes.
Social workers and health care workers learn to distinguish between signs of harassment that warrant direct intervention and those that call for referral to law enforcement or other officials.
In the months after September 11th, the Center sent outreach coordinators to interview members of Muslim communities around the state. The report that resulted, Understanding the Impact of September 11th on Muslims in Maine, documents hate incidents directed against Muslim families, students and workers, as well as the fear and anxiety they experienced.
The Center continues to work with government agencies, religious institutions and non-profit organizations in Maine to provide a safe environment for the state’s growing Muslim population.
Energized for Action
From its idyllic setting – on a wooded hill overlooking Sennebec Lake — to its folksy name, Appleton Village School seems to embody Maine’s small-town character. The K-8 school serves 135 children and presents, at first glance, a portrait of harmony.
Two years ago, Appleton educators became alarmed at the rising tide of ridicule and disrespect in student interactions. Seizing on any sign of difference, children found ample opportunities to demean one another, picking on poorer kids, mocking academic stars, putting down the underachievers, taunting classmates about uncool clothes and sassing teachers.
The atmosphere was thick with casual wounding: "Fat cow," "Queer," "Ho," "Hag," "Slut," "Retard."
Some Appleton teachers developed the habit of closing their ears when walking through the halls. "You get overwhelmed," says Appleton guidance counselor Rob Pfeiffer. "You’re constantly doing triage."
Finally, principal Debra McIntyre invited the Center to conduct a series of workshops at the school in fall 2001. Teachers and students alike recall the "ear-opening" experience as a new beginning.
They credit the training for demonstrating that the smallest acts of unkindness have a poisonous cumulative effect. By the end of that first year, school officials noted a dramatic drop in teasing and name-calling.
"We don’t use that language anymore," says Eli, a plain-talking 8th-grader with piercing dark eyes and close-cropped black hair. One of 20 Appleton students trained in the Student Leaders Project, Eli observes that the simple message of the workshop hit home.
"Now," he says, "people really think about what they say."
The Center’s program complements the efforts of those educators who are already working on tolerance issues, giving them new insight and skills – or inspiration to follow through in the face of setbacks.
"Cruelty sometimes pops out when you least hope," Pfeiffer says, recalling an affirmation exercise that went awry. Taped to every pupil’s back was a sheet of paper on which other students were supposed to write a compliment about the person.
"One child had the word ‘ugly’ written on her back," Pfeiffer recalls. Going into damage-control mode, Pfeiffer quickly collected the papers and began the exercise again, saying there had been a glitch.
"The girl, who had a difference about her, wasn’t aware of what was said, and I didn’t want to make her aware."
He spoke privately with the student who wrote the comment. "The first step is to get them to understand how it feels for the other person," Pfeiffer says. In the best of cases, the student who has learned the lesson of empathy goes on to challenge inappropriate language in others.
McIntyre sees the ripple effect paying off at Appleton. Her tally of disciplinary detentions and office referrals is down by half from last year.
In addition, she observes not only less teasing and fewer schoolyard shouting matches, but also more cooperation and inclusiveness among children on the playground. And there are other dividends as well.
"When you’re not having to focus all of your time on safety and harassment issues," she says, "you can move toward achieving your academic goals."
As with all the schools the Center works with, Lewiston High invited the group to help with the challenges it is facing. The mostly White blue-collar town of 36,000 is experiencing an influx of immigrant families from East Africa – principally Somalia.
Portland was the primary refugee resettlement center in the Northeast in the 1980s, says Phil Nadeau, Lewiston’s assistant city administrator and director of its Department of Human Services. In recent years, as families began to settle, more affordable housing, educational opportunities and city amenities drew them to nearby Lewiston.
Now, secondary migrants (families, and those originally settled in other cities in the United States) continue to join them. The city estimated about 1,100 Somali immigrants as of September and expects a steady flow of about 20 additional families per month in the foreseeable future, says Nadeau.
Such a rapid change in population has put the community under stress. "They feel a threat for jobs," says Jim LaRouche, guidance counselor at Lewiston High School.
"We’re going to have a new distribution center for Wal-Mart right in Lewiston. A lot of people will be competing for these jobs, including our new Somali population.”
Nadeau suspects that for some Lewiston residents, the concern they express over jobs may mask some deeper attitudes of prejudice and reluctance to change. Whatever the reasons, the city is working hard to defuse the tensions, with schools playing a pivotal role.
Lewiston officials hope students — who interact daily with children from Somali families — can develop a spirit of acceptance and bring that message home to their parents, who may have limited firsthand experience of even African Americans, much less African immigrants.
"We know some students are hearing some rather ugly things around the supper table at night," says LaRouche. "If we stick our heads in the sand, it’s going to become a terrible situation."
The school has reconfigured the cafeteria and set up new tables in an effort to discourage isolation and promote social interaction at lunchtime. It held a community-wide multicultural fair this past fall.
Lewiston hopes the student leaders trained in the workshop will not only create a more welcoming culture in the schools, but also bring some of that sentiment to the community at large. The students at the workshop seem up to the challenge.
Greg, a White 11th grader who calls himself "very extroverted," says there have always been bullies in the high school, but now they have easy targets with the African students.
He thinks the harassers are motivated by a desire to be macho or feel a cut above others — attitudes that Greg has seen student peers defuse. "Just one person standing up and saying, ‘No, we don’t think so,’ diminishes their feeling of superiority."
Kamal, a lanky 18-year-old from Somalia who has been in Lewiston since early 2001, says he has observed some teasing and name-calling. "It’s not all of the students, but just some people."
Kamal says he is heartened that he sees teachers intervene when they observe inappropriate behavior – something he is prepared to do after attending the workshop.
"It’s not that they’re racist or they hate Somali people or African American people," offers Alazar, a 17-year-old from Ethiopia. "It’s just that they’re not used to the change."
Lewiston’s struggle with newfound diversity resembles that of Maine’s largest city, Portland, in recent years. If the Center’s experience at Portland High School is any indication, Lewiston will come out all right.
Since Wessler’s group began working at Portland High in 1999, school social workers Norma Balser and Kathy Randall noticed a marked reduction in racial tension and student conflicts.
"Every year it has gotten better," says Randall.
Balser has a theory why the Center’s work is successful. "It’s a pro-active program," she says. "We usually do the reactive social work."
Success has come because many Portland students trained in the Student Leaders Project have followed through.
"If I hear a racial slur, they will hear something out of me," says Matt, a 10th grader whose family is Korean. Acquaintances have learned to watch their tongues around Matt. "I don’t hear too many racial slurs, except from strangers."
Fighting against a broader culture where name-calling and teasing are the rule, Wessler sets realistic goals.
"We’re not going to dramatically change the country within 10 or 20 years," he says. "On the other hand, it all depends on what you’re measuring. If we’ve got two social workers at Portland High School saying they don’t have racially motivated fights anymore, we’ve done a lot. If we have peer leaders who are actually saying that their friends are picking up on their role-modeling — our gentle, low-key interventions abnout degrading language — and are doing it themselves, that's a huge change."