They don’t call the teenage years ‘awkward’ for nothing, and the common self-insecurities of the age can often make high school a difficult social microcosm for teens to navigate. But sometimes it can be made especially tough, when all forms of stereotyping, bullying and unkindness come into play between students and others in the school community.

This past Tuesday, Dec. 4, Wilton High School administrators tried something that was designed to both explore just how destructive and painful discrimination can be, and reinforce an expectation of mutual respect and appreciation of individual differences. They held an all-day program for sophomores called “Names Can Really Hurt Us,” a curriculum developed by the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) A World of Difference Institute.

The program has become well known as one that breaks down walls dividing kids, allowing the students to examine the school community and identify where discrimination and bullying happens. It gives the students safe space to share with one another their experiences with being targets or perpetrators of negative behaviors, and empowers them as a group to identify ways to enact positive change within the school environment.

Student organizers Isabel Gouveia and Callie Judelson

What’s central to the program’s success is the major role that student leaders play. While the event was run under the guidance of Kim Zemo, the district’s safe schools climate coordinator, along with teachers Jim Hunter and Kevin Slater, the main drivers are a team of student volunteers who spent hours in training to prepare for the Names program. They were very visible throughout the all-day program–speaking in front of the entire sophomore class assembly as well as facilitating small group breakout sessions.

Several students played a key part as members of a panel who shared very personal stories of their own experiences with discrimination and bullying. As school principal Robert O’Donnell described it, “they told of being marginalized during their time in Wilton schools, because of ethnicity, religion, body image, skin color, or the college they’d be attending… They bared their souls, really.”

That set the stage for the most profound part of the day–the open mic session, during which anyone was invited to come to the microphone and share individual stories. You might think that the idea of telling stories of vulnerability and pain in front of 200 classmates would be something the teens would refuse to do–but you’d be surprised. While it started slowly, with just two or three students who started the session, by the end students were lined up to wait their turn to speak in front of everyone–and bare their souls.

“It takes a while to get young people to open up, realize they’re in a safe space and then have the courage to share. Once two- to three people come to the open mic, it was powerful to see the amount of people who came forward,” says Anne-Marie Brungard, Tuesday’s ADL facilitator who has been leading the program in schools for many years–including the last time it was held at WHS, over a decade ago.

As part of GOOD Morning Wilton’s coverage of the program, we assured school officials we wouldn’t divulge any personal stories or identifying details of particular student stories. In fact that condition was something everyone in the Clune Auditorium was encouraged to abide by, in order to protect and respect the courage it took for these teens to open up and be honest.

And boy, they were honest. They told stories of rumors being spread and name-calling, of whispered slurs and overt aggressions. How the “it was just a joke” episodes aren’t really a laughing matter, and they still sting. How being labeled left them feeling scared, intimidated and alone. They talked about walking away from these incidents feeling isolated, demoralized, depressed–and worthless. They also talked about times they committed those offenses against their peers, and coming to terms with making another person feel less than.

More than two dozen kids told their stories before time was up, and many more told their small group facilitators that they would have stood up to share their own experiences if there had been time. One of the primary takeaways was that the students said the open mic session should have been longer.

Without revealing specific stories, here were some of the words the students used, to give an idea of how they expressed themselves so openly:

  • consider how our actions affect others, and we’re not alone in this world–others are affected by our experiences, no matter how small
  • a joke about Hitler, or holocaust, not sure how that becomes a joke, even “I’m just kidding, doesn’t take away that sting”
  • Little things can be big, you don’t know what’s going on in someone’s life… ask, joke went on way too long… check in, little things really affect people
  • you may think it’s funny or it’s not going to be a big deal, but it literally may mean the world to someone
  • the depth of the feeling–depression, violence, we can stop it before it gets there. we can manage ourselves before it gets there…
  • the difference one person could make, if one person could stand up
  • One of my biggest regrets was that I didn’t stand up for him, or say sorry
  • there are a lot of issues with anti-semitism and desensitization… it gets passed off as a joke but these are  personal attacks. It’s hurtful and should be taken more seriously.
  • If you want to know what I am, ask me. Don’t put a label, just ask.

Brungard helped the kids see was how universal the experiences are, as they are for teens everywhere as well as at Wilton High School. Even before the open mic session, she asked the entire sophomore class to close their eyes, she then instructed, “Raise your hand if you feel you’ve been a target.” In her estimation, about 80% of the students raised their hands. Then, “Raise your hand if you’ve been a bystander to someone being targeted.” This time, about 90% of the hands were raised. Then, “Raise your hand if you’ve been a perpetrator.” Again, 90% said they had been. Finally, “Raise your hand if you’ve been an ally.” Most of the room raised hands.

“That tells me a few things, that we’ve had similar experiences in the room. It also lets me know that you know how it feels to be a target. It also lets me know that this is a school with potential to be full of allies,” Brungard told the kids.

O’Donnell said that the level of authenticity and transparency made the experience powerful, one that could be a tipping point.

As an adult it was powerful to gain a window in to the adolescent mind, where they struggle with what they learn, what they have not yet learned, trying to determine where you can be an ally and upstander as opposed to a bystander, where you might turn to a friend and say, ‘That’s not ok to say.’ … It was an opportunity to see that nobody is perfect and this is a chance to make changes.”

Next Steps

Of course the challenge will be sustaining the momentum that came out of the assembly. There will be a follow-up meeting next week to talk about next steps and the ADL returns in January to help the students map out a plan of how to implement and reinforce what grew out of the experience. Moreover, administrators hope to be able to run the program again for another class, potentially the juniors (if funding can be secured), with the idea to make the program an annual part of the curriculum for sophomore classes.

Through it all, it will be student led. As all the adults involved agreed, at this age it’s critical that the direction comes from the students, and success depends on their involvement. In a sense, it’s taking peer pressure, where it’s done damage in the past, to now do good.

“Everything I saw was positivity. People were seeing each other in a different light. Once they see the change, it’s not something elusive. They see a couple kids being different and nicer, it promotes more and becomes positive feedback. it’s a process,” says Hunter.

Zemo’s role it is to oversee this amorphous thing called “school climate,” which encompasses so much–from school safety and security to students’ mental health. She saw the potential for how much of a game-changer the Names program can be.

“The kids spoke about the impact on their mental health from the negativity and pressure of other kids being mean, that was also powerful to get kids to stop and think about their behavior, that it does matter, and that we have a lot of kids who are hurting. How can we support one another. If we can start to change this, it’s one layer of stress and anxiety taken off because we’re getting rid of the name calling, the bullying, all that. They can spend all of the energy that had been focused on that, helping others, doing the right thing, and making themselves feel better,” she said.

In the breakout groups the kids brainstormed the kinds of changes that the school community could make to help address the issue. Afterward, the entire class reunited for a closing session in the auditorium, where each group student facilitator shared one suggestion from his or her group. Among the ideas were:

  • more opportunities for sharing individual stories, and have teachers ask how students are
  • make it more acceptable for people to express emotions
  • hold more assemblies, like this one, and huge brainstorming with more students
  • incorporate this program into advisory, with more activities to keep the energy going
  • now that we’ve identified no one is alone, keep reaching out to people when you know they need help
  • although it doesn’t seem like it, there is diversity, and embracing differences can encourage others to embrace them, to show there is diversity in this town
  • hold the Names program for every grade, each year
  • even if certain things are insignificant, it’s important to act out and comfort the person, and confront the perpetrator
  • continue smaller meetings with different smaller groups, change them continuously
  • get teachers more involved, because teachers play an active role and they are needed to support students more
  • bring the program to the middle school since a lot of the stories we heard happened during middle school

Brungard used the word ‘ROPES’ as an acronym to help set some ground rules for the program, saying, “I like to think about the word, ropes, in terms of it tying us all together, making sure we’re all on the same page. But I also like to think of the ropes in terms of the way there are multiple strands, twisted together, and that’s what gives it it’s strength. And so there are many of us in this room together, that when we pull together, it’s a good deal of strength and a great deal of power in this room.”

She then asked the students to help come up with words that began with each of the letters in the word to help establish a framework for the day–and define what they meant.

  1. R–respect…understanding their background, that they have different life experiences, make a good experience for everyone, so that you feel comfortable listening to each other, treating someone with kindness; respond–respond emotionally and support. risk–it’s hard to share things close to the heart; push past a comfort zone. It may make us feel uncomfortable–name calling, bullying, stereotypes, can be uncomfortable, can be painful, but we need to take that risk so that we are talking to each other, with honesty and openness.
  2. O–Open-minded:  suspend judgement. Whatever you though that was about, put that down, make an effort, because you only get what you put in. You get back something by putting energy into this experience. Optimism:  keep a good attitude. Opportunity.   Oops–sometimes with challenging conversation, it may be hurtful, it wasn’t intentional, but it’s part of the conversation. Ouch–when a participant is hurt, it’s important to speak out when you’re not comfortable, when you’re upset, it provides an opportunity to stop what’s happening. Helps us have a challenging conversation.
  3. P–perseverance–keep going and don’t quit, even though it’s challenging, keep working this through. participation–you’ll only get something out if you’re an active part of the conversation. what you’ll put in
  4. E–escuchar spanish word for listening. Actively listening. Empathy–have compassion for others. Energy.
  5. S–Sympathetic, listen and be understanding. Safety–working hard to create a safe environment for each student to be able to share.