Western High School educating about diversity

In April 2018, a clash between two Western High School students exploded into public protests with racial overtones. The protests attracted state and national media. Before it was over, one student had lost a job, another saw a scholarship revoked and classes were canceled for a day to allow tempers to cool. Many in the community felt the incident tarnished Auburn’s reputation.

One year later, students and teachers are working together to turn the ugly incident into a lesson in growing as individuals and as a community. “At Western, we teach that things are opportunities not problems,” said Western High School Principal Judy Cox.

This opportunity began with a social media squabble between a boy and a girl. The boy routinely drove a truck with a flag flying from the back. One day, the girl grabbed the flag and tossed it into the bed of his truck. She scrawled a racial slur into the dust on the tailgate. 

The flag was not Confederate and the slur had nothing to do with the original disagreement. 

Race became part of the story, though, when the boy asked his friends to retaliate by flying flags of all kinds the next school day. There were U.S. flags, the LGBTQ flag, and the Don’t Tread on Me flag. The one that got most of the attention, though, was the Confederate flag.

Later, the boy and many of the students would say the flag was a symbol of their rural heritage. It had nothing to do with race. Other people, though, interpreted it as a racist symbol.

The students were surprised at the response, said Western High School Principal Judy Cox.

“Inside the building, you didn’t know anything was going on,” Cox said. “There was no ruckus in here. There were no threats of violence. Most of the kids were not even skipping class. They were still coming in for class.”

Students pass a "talking toy" around to keep track of whose turn it is to speak during a recent SPIRIT Council meeting.Eventually, Cox helped the two students involved in the initial conflict peacefully resolve their issue. The protests just off school property ended. For many, though, the anger lingered after the protests ended and the reporters left.

As an educator, Cox saw an opportunity to heal and teach at the same time. She welcomed an offer of help from the U.S. Department of Justice. The Justice Department helped form a SPIRIT Council at Western. SPIRIT stands for the Student Problem Identification and Resolutions of Issues Together. About 15 years ago, the Justice Department created SPIRIT to help students, administrators, teachers, and parents to identify issues, develop solutions, and take action on conflicts.

Many areas with SPIRIT Councils face deadly violence and ongoing racial conflicts. In Auburn, the problem is less obvious. According to the online Public School Review, only 5% of Western students identify as a minority.

Beth Gehoski, the school’s work-based learning coordinator and one of the teachers involved in SPIRIT, said there’s more economic than racial diversity in the community, but the students aren’t always aware of the financial realities some of their classmates face.

Gehoski said she sees kids with a lack of experience. “It’s not active racism,” Gehoski said. However, the kids need to get past that and understand differences in people before they graduate high school.
During a recent meeting, the SPIRIT Council considered asking students to complete forms detailing concerns.

“We’re still defining this group and really figuring out how this group can make the impact that it needs to. It took awhile for us to get to a place that we’re ready for that,” Cox said. “How do we educate about any type of diversity? That’s our next task.”

Another, related goal is making sure each student has a voice. Students are encouraged to use their voices to celebrate what’s positive as well as to solve problems.

During a recent SPIRIT meeting, Cox and the students brainstormed ways to ensure every student has a voice. Cox walked the SPIRIT Council through a brainstorming technique designed to keep comments on topic and the conversation moving. She reminded the students the technique will work in a variety of situations.

“Our topic today is to talk about how to gather feedback from students,” Cox explained. “We need to include the whole population.”

From there, the group considered two proposals. Maxwell Miller, 10th grade, explained his idea of sending SPIRIT members into classrooms to ask students to write concerns on index cards. Several teachers suggested accomplishing the same goal, but by asking students to complete forms. During the meeting, members of SPIRIT listened, asked questions, and tried to figure out which method would generate the most input.

At the end of the meeting, Cox sent the students out with the homework assignment of coming up with ideas for activities that promote diversity during the 2019-20 school year.

A recorder captures suggestions from the members of the SPIRIT Council.

SPIRIT fits perfectly with Capturing Kids Hearts, a program the school implemented long before the protests. As part of Capturing Kids Hearts, the students end classes with “Launch.” Launch is fast. It takes only a minute or two. It calls for ending the day on a positive note. Maxwell said some teachers read positive quotes or show inspirational videos. Others ask students to take turns sharing something positive about themselves.

Capturing Kids Hearts and Launch are part of a conflict resolution grant the school received from the Bay Area Community Foundation. Cox said it includes other processes, such as teachers shaking hands with students or writing social contracts rather than classroom rules.

“This SPIRIT Council has been a good thing,” Cox said. “That’s what we keep reinforcing. Good comes out of everything. It just depends on what you focus on.”

The students involved include:
  • Hannah Bollman, 11th grade
  • Kameron Brozewski, 12th grade
  • Matt Campbell, 12th grade
  • Marisa Carroll, 11th grade
  • Jaden Decuf, 9th grade
  • Sandra Malka, exchange student
  • Maxwell Miller, 10th grade
  • Lyndsay Myers, 9th grade
  • Taylor Parker, 10th grade
  • Diva Patel, 11th grade
  • Abbie Pinter, 12th grade
  • Sydney Schafer, 12th grade
  • Colin Syring, 12th grade
The teachers involved include:
  • Molly Baldauf
  • Angela Clark
  • Beth Gehoski
  • Melanie Heller
  • Kari McCulloch
  • Dora Mendoza
  • Jeff Rahl
  • Amy Wierda

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