by Gloria Partida and Madhavi Sunder
In 1983, an Asian American Davis Senior High School student, Thong H. Huynh, was stabbed to death in the science quad in a racially motivated attack. In 1992, 14-year-old Holmes Junior High Student Andrew Mockus was beaten, robbed, and pushed into a moving train by three high school students from Davis. The perpetrators had a history of bullying and violence at school. Last year, late one evening, Mikey Partida’s 32nd birthday celebration began as a joyful affair but turned into a nightmare. An intoxicated neighbor began shouting homophobic insults at Partida. Partida was severely beaten because of his sexual orientation by a youth described by many as having a long history of bullying.
This weekend the Davis Phoenix Coalition launched the “Hate Is Not a Davis Value” campaign to support programs in our community and schools aimed at preventing such hate crimes from ever again occurring in our community. Community leaders from County Supervisor Don Saylor to Mayor Dan Wolk attended the launch. Community member Dan Brunn spoke of his own memories of bullying, which were the impetus for his documentary “Davisville 2013” about the hate crime perpetrated on Mikey Partida.
Among other community-wide programs, the “Hate Is Not a Davis Value” campaign seeks to foster “identity-safe classrooms” in our district schools. One of us — Gloria Partida — is the mother of Mikey Partida and co-chair of the Davis Phoenix Coalition. The other — Madhavi Sunder — is a candidate for the Davis School Board. In this column, we share some strategies for nurturing empathy, respect and understanding in our district schools and for supporting a pro-social environment.
School climate broadly refers to major spheres of school life: safety, relationships, teaching and learning, and the external environment. Educational literature shows that how we feel in school affects our ability to engage and learn. Positive school environments are associated with academic achievement and social and emotional well-being, minimizing risky behavior and improving self-esteem. The ultimate goal of creating positive school climates is to create youth who are confident, secure, and able to live satisfying and productive lives. This cannot be done without teaching not only science and reading, but also about diversity, respect and kindness.
To that end, in 2005 when Madhavi led the campaign to name what is now Korematsu Elementary after the civil rights hero, we imagined that Fred Korematsu’s life would empower children to stand up to bullying. Korematsu, an ordinary man who challenged the Japanese Internment as unconstitutional, would offer the following lesson from his own life: “If you have the feeling something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up.” That simple statement, now a motto of the Korematsu Elementary, is designed to help give children the courage to speak up for justice. Today Korematsu Elementary proudly calls itself a “social justice school.” Principal Mary Ponce explains, “We’re trying to live a democratic school that wants people to be socially just and inclusive.” In the multiethnic environment of California, Korematsu reminds us that the American ideal of equality of opportunity includes all children. President Barack Obama offered that being American is not about the color of your skin or having a “funny name” as Barack Obama describes himself, or your choice of whom to love. We need to make sure that our children grow up recognizing and respecting our diversity.
In our experience, Davis principals and parent leaders endeavor to makeschool climate a high priority. A school’s climate can begin to be assessed in the first few minutes of entering any school. Are there displays of student work? Are all kinds of students represented in photos and posters?Or are the walls devoid of student work, displaying instead posters with 15 rules of conduct? Does the poster begin each rule with the word “Don’t”? How you are greeted (or not) by students and adults in the hallway impacts how you feel. Are adults and peers helpful and interested in whom you are and how to help you get where you want?Or do they walk by trying not to make eye contact?
In this column, we want to highlight some strategies and programs that our own schools are using to promote a healthy climate. We do not highlight these programs as better than any others, but merely to give examples of the kinds of ways parents, teachers, students, and administrators are working together to reduce bullying and promote inclusion and respect.
- “Safe Schools Ambassadors” at Holmes Junior High. At Holmes Junior High, Principal Derek Brothers believes the “feel” of the school is conveyed the moment a student or family enters the campus. “I hear many, many times how comfortable people feel when they walk up to the front desk,” says Brothers, praising the staff — Judy Stafford, Louisa Nye and Georgie Chambers, and Jan Chandler. Teachers intervene in student conversations to help promote inclusive language. “When did you learn to cuss,” asks Brothers? “In Junior High,” he answers. Teachers intervene when students use phrases like “that’s so gay.” Teachers are closely listening to and interacting with kids. Brothers emphasizes that having school counselors is extremely important. The school has a “Safe School Ambassadors” programs in which some 60 kids from diverse communities are identified as leaders among their peers. The program gives these kids skills on how to diffuse a situation safely. “Fighting has gone down dramatically,” says Brothers. “They report things to us. They’ll give us suggestions. It’s allowed us to have more ears and eyes out there.” The program was a response to a suicide by a Holmes student several years earlier. Principal Brothers reports, “When we found out how many kids knew he was depressed, it became alarming. If you care, you speak up.”
- Leadership Classes at Emerson Junior High. At Emerson Junior High, teacher Jennifer Terra teaches Leadership classes that help empower students to stand up to bullying and coach peers through conflicts. Terra has also organized “diversity training” workshops for junior high students, inviting members and leaders from diverse communities to speak to young people and help them understand their experiences of bullying and discrimination. Students have met with LGBT parents of their peers, and African American classmates. The trainings, which Terra has been organizing for nearly 20 years, bring together junior high students and representatives of various groups that have historically suffered from discrimination, stereotyping, bullying and worse. Students become more aware of their own biases, and how what they say and do affects others.
- “Lunchapalooza!” at Pioneer Elementary. Pioneer’s physical education teacher, Lisa Bell, has been working hard in partnership with the PTA and school administration to keep kids engaged on the school playground during lunchtime with fun new games like “Pigball” (basketball with a football!) and “Nine Square in the Air.” Organized, fun, and adult-supervised activities are already proving successful at Pioneer and other schools in our district in minimizing lunchtime drama, conflict, and feelings of exclusion and isolation. Pioneer PTA President Sally McGowan and Principal Matt Duffy have also spoken with us about the important roles played by counselors in our elementary schools. The Davis Schools Foundation and individual elementary school PTAs help fund counseling in elementary schools. Elementary principals identify counselors as a key need.
- Developing Physical Education and Leadership Skills Through “Playworks” at Chavez Elementary. The “Playworks” program at Chavez Elementary teaches children organized games that develop age-appropriate physical education skills, and offers inclusive and fun activities for lunchtime recess. Playworks is an international non-profit organization. Studies have shown the program helps to reduce bullying, enhances feelings of safety at school, increases vigorous physical activity during recess, and provides more time for classroom teaching. Two years before implementing Playworks, the Chavez Climate Survey found that 76% of students reported bullying on the playground. Although it is only a suggestive correlation, that number dropped to 28% in recent years after the school began implementing Playworks. Anecdotal data from teachers, parents, and staff suggests kids are better focused when they get back to class; the office receives fewer referrals due to injuries and conflicts when Playworks is on the playground. Many parents report their kids are enjoying recess more. At Chavez, where the program has been available for three years, older children (grades 5 and 6) apply to serve as “Playworks Peers.” Peers (a few of whom are pictured here) develop leadership skills by teaching younger children a “Game of the Week.” Rising 7th grader Holly McGuinness, bottom right, says Playworks Peers and Student Council gave her the confidence to apply for a seat in the Leadership class at Emerson Junior High.
This is just a sampling of the kinds of innovative programs in our district to reduce bullying and to promote more inclusive and respectful communities. There are other important efforts, as well, including the Gay Straight Alliance at the high schools and junior high schools, a student run organization that supports and raises awareness around the LGBT community. The “Race and Social Justice” program at Davis Senior High School is putting on a 10th anniversary program in the Brunelle Performance Center at DHS on August 30 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Today a memorial in Huynh’s name stands in the science quad and the city gives an annual award in his name. A memorial to Mockus greets visitors at the Davis Little League fields and the city has given Golden Heart Awards in his honor. The sad lesson of the violence against Huynh, Mockus, and Partida is that even with our community’s best intentions, unless we stand vigilant against complacency in our own homes and look out for the needs of every student we will continue to ask “how did this happen?” when our children commit unthinkable acts of violence. Let us keep struggling to demonstrate and inculcate respect for each other. Let us all stand together to ensure that Hate is Not a Davis Value.
Gloria Partida is co-chair of the Davis Phoenix Coalition and a member of the City of Davis Human Relations Commission. Madhavi Sunder has been a professor of law at UC Davis since 1999 and is a candidate for the Davis School Board in November 2014. To learn more about her campaign please visit www.sunderforschools.org or follow (and perhaps “like”) her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sunderforschoolboard.