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Students leading students

Local schools take initiative to battle middle school bullying and stereotyping

by Morgan Smith

Aashna Desai, upper right and a senior from Charlotte Latin School, helped lead a group of middle school students from around Charlotte in a discussion about stereotypes. Aashna is a member of the mosaic club at Charlotte Latin. Morgan Smith/SCW photo

A world without stereotypes and bullying seems nearly impossible. A school without stereotypes seems even more impossible, but for several south Charlotte students, it’s their dream and they’re taking a stand.

Twenty high school students from Charlotte Country Day, Charlotte Latin and Providence Day schools came up with a way to start breaking stereotypes and bullying before students get to high school. The group hosted around 150 middle school students at Country Day’s Bissell middle school campus Tuesday, April 24, for the first annual Affirming Community Together Conference.

“We’re looking for ways to make the schools more inclusive – we’re trying to spread diversity at the middle school and then spread it to high school,” Charlotte Country Day senior Geard Fossett said.

Geard and other facilitators from the three schools participate in several diversity and leadership conferences each year to give them the tools they need to make a change in their community. This year, the students wanted to take that next step and utilize what they learned.

The group has been working on the conference since early fall, and Imana Legette, coordinator of the event and teacher at Charlotte Country Day, said it was a collaborative effort to come up with the direction of the conference.

“At a private school, diversity is one of those radar issues – it’s always on our mind and it’s something we have to be very deliberate about. So (the students) all bought into this idea very quickly,” Legette said.

Students from Providence Day, Charlotte Latin and Charlotte Country Day upper schools lead middle school students from across Charlotte in a discussion on stereotypes. (Back right) Senior Ryan Carter, Charlotte Latin. (Front, left to right) Sophomore Mhalik White, Providence Day; Senior Geard Fossett, Charlotte Country Day; Junior Katie Mayopoulos, Charlotte Latin; and senior Meron Fessehaye, Charlotte Latin. Morgan Smith/SCW photo

The conference is split into two workshops, the first about stereotyping and the media and the second on bullying. For stereotyping, the groups split up by age, fifth- and sixth-graders, and seventh- and eighth-graders. Each session varied, with around four to five high school students leading each, covering issues on race, ethnicity and religion and how to break stereotypes around those issues.

“The students are leading it,” said Legette, adding that she has been nothing more than support for the students. Each group began with an activity or game and wrapped up with an open discussion about different stereotypes and how they came to be.

For the second round of workshops, middle school students were split into groups divided by gender and grade.

Geard helped lead the fifth- and sixth-grade boys in the bullying workshop. He said he chose to work with those students not necessarily because of experiences he’s had in the past, but because teaching students at a younger age about bullying could have a greater impact, he said, and if he put himself in a middle-schoolers shoes, he might have listened more to a teenager rather than a teacher.

“As a former middle school or soon to be high school student, when I heard adults speaking about ideas like this, it tended to be a lecture and it was easy to tune them out,” Geard said. “We’re not much older than these kids and I think they’ll really listen.”

Bullying activities and discussions varied based on the age of the students, Geard said, and for older students, discussions were based more about issues that could come up in high school.  But one lesson high schoolers embraced focused on the bystander and standing up for the bullied, no matter what age you are.

For Nick Wharton, the director of diversity at Charlotte Latin School, the greatest part of the conference was that the high school students are in charge.

“What an incredible idea to utilize upper level students who have been exposed to diversity at their own conference,” Wharton said. “I think middle schoolers look up to seniors because they know they’re going to be there. They hear the high schoolers with a special ear.”

Mark Reed, head of school at Charlotte Country Day, said the conference is just as much about shaping the culture at independent schools as it is about spreading diversity.

“There is no school that can say they are void of stereotyping,” Reed said. “What we would like to say is that we are working to combat that,” Reed, who experienced a similar conference at his previous school, said.

All three schools hope to continue the initiative in the future. Reed and Legette both said the conference is really a shared responsibility between all three schools, and can’t wait to see the initiative grow.

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