By ROB W. ANDERSON
Teaching tolerance means embracing the rainbow of diversity, and encouraging others to do the same.
A decade ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center launched a national “Mix It Up at Lunch Day” campaign to encourage students to identify, question and cross social boundaries every year on Oct. 30. Surveys conducted by the SPLC revealed that students identify the school cafeteria as the location on campus where divisions among the student body are felt the most.
The Mix It Up peer activity asks students to leave their comfort zones of familiarity in friends and routine, and try to establish new relationships and meet some of the strangers they see near their lockers, in the hallway and even in their classroom.
Last week was Bullying Prevention Week at Tahlequah Middle School, and one of the many activities geared toward promoting positive interaction and peer acceptance was a Mix It Up at Lunch Day. The event was received with mixed reviews, said TMS Preventionist Fred Poteete.
“Some of the younger kids did well, and some of the older kids rebelled against it,” he said. “Not everything that we don’t like is bad for us. They didn’t like it because they couldn’t be with their friends.”
The interaction only lasted a short time, Poteete said.
“We let them eat and sit with each other for 15 to 20 minutes, and the last 10 minutes, we let them go outside,” he said. “So some of the younger kids were a lot more receptive to it, and that just has to do with their hearts being younger and more moldable. As they get older, as we get older, our hearts get hard, and we don’t like change.”
The students received one of four colors marked on their hands and were expected to share a table with students who had the same color.
“We upset their normal apple cart, but my goal was just for kids to get to know somebody else and to find out, ‘You know, they’re not quite as different from me than I thought they were, and I do have something in common with someone I don’t run around with all the time,’” said Poteete. “It’s a life skill to me. They’re not going to always get to be around the people they want to be around. Once they get to know someone that is, quote, ‘a little different’ than them, they find that ‘man, they’re not quite so different from me after all.’”
Though the activity was part of anti-bullying activities, some local residents began circulating an email from a group called the American Family Association that painted the event and the Oct. 30 national Mix It Up at Lunch Day campaign as a “radical Southern Poverty Law Center behind gay indoctrination program specifically directed at elementary and junior high” students.
The Daily Press received a copy of the email from one of its faith page contributors. Among those apparently instigating the local email campaign was a former candidate for political office. The Press also had at least two calls from people complaining that members of their churches were circulating the email.
Poteete said he was unaware of the email, and stressed the activity is simply about protecting the rights of others in a public setting like a school campus.
“I think they’re using it as an opportunity to bash the Southern [Poverty] Law [Center] or people teaching tolerance,” he said. “I’m caught in the middle because I want to protect the kid, whether he’s a homosexual or he’s not a homosexual. It doesn’t matter what they’re being singled out for or being bullied for or being picked on for. I want to do whatever I can to resolve that and try to change those mores here at school.”
Poteete attended a national bullying conference last September, and he got to meet a student from Sioux City, Iowa, who had appeared in the movie “Bully.” He also heard several parents speak whose children had died as a result of bullying.
“Some of it was about gay and lesbian, transgender, but we don’t focus on it,” Poteete said. “I’m totally about protecting those kids’ rights here at school. I can’t control it away from school, but I can on the bus or in athletics. They have just as much right to be protected as someone [who’s] Asian or African-American or Native American, Caucasian; or because of their religion or ethnic group; or whether they wear glasses, or they’re a little overweight or real skinny; or whether they’re real short or real tall, blonde-headed, blue-eyed or don’t wear a certain type of clothes. [It doesn’t matter if they’re in] athletics or band or in choir or FFA. People get picked on for all those reasons because they’re different from someone else.”
The AFA email called for parents across the nation to call school principals to demand their school refuse to participate in Mix it Up activities. The email even suggested keeping children home from school Oct. 30 so they wouldn’t have to interact with students who might be gay.
The SPLC posted a response on its website, calling AFA’s labeling of Mix It Up at Lunch Day as a gay indoctrination program an “out-and-out lie.” The post, headlined “Mix It Up and the AFA,” said the activity “is a simple effort to get students to break through social boundaries and make new friends. Each school sets its own agenda, makes it own plans and chooses its own theme.” The website stated that over 3,000 schools participated in 2011, without incident.
“First of all, your leadership has to support it, and [TMS Principal] Mrs. Mashburn totally supports [our bullying prevention efforts and activities], and our superintendent, Lisa Presley, totally supports what we’re doing,” said Poteete. “I teach a fifth-grade class every day, and we talk about social bullying, relational bullying. If someone lives on Basin Street and someone lives by Greenwood; maybe they don’t have a car or maybe their car’s beat-up. Your dad may be a city worker and or president of Northeastern State University. That doesn’t make you a better person. What makes you a good person is how you treat other people, and that’s the kind of things I talk to kids about.”