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Just Messages

Racism is a part of daily life at Amherst Regional High School.

It’s there in the jokes, the put-downs, even an anonymous threatening note and slur aimed at a teacher.

But members of the student group People of Color United (POCU) believe the atmosphere at Amherst Regional is not so different than anywhere else.

“We’re just trying to talk about it,” Shaya Shally-Jensen, a junior, said the other day in an interview at school. “Amherst is one of the only schools to bring it to the forefront.”

Shally-Jensen was part of a rotating group sitting at a table near an entrance to the cafeteria the week before winter break collecting short statements from students about ways they’ve stood up against prejudice and bullying. The notes were later hung on a clothesline strung in the hallway, as one of a number of activities student groups organized as part of “Warrior Week.” The events, built around the theme “From Cowards to Warriors, Courage to Act,” were inspired by a visit to Amherst last fall by social justice activist and educator Calvin Terrell of Phoenix, who urged students to confront prejudice, overt and subtle, by being warriors for peace.

There were also skits performed on the topic, a relevant phrase of the day — white privilege, brown bag test, social justice — the showing of a film about black and Latino teens wrongly accused of a crime and two morning “advisories” in which small groups of students and staff discussed related issues, such as the threat to the teacher last fall and how to intervene when bullying occurs.

“People are willing to hear what we have to say,” said Angela Ononibaku, a senior. “People are open to making a change.”

But not everyone.

“A large number of people won’t participate in anything we are doing,” said Michaela Bowen, a senior. “We’re coming at this without putting the blame on anybody, but no matter how we portray it, some students are going to feel attacked.”

Recent events, including the closing of school for a day over a Facebook gun reference prompted by a bitter quarrel over casual use of the N-word, served as an eye-opener, the students said. But the fact that such tension exists in the high school wasn’t news to them.

In Amherst 30 percent of the secondary school students are people of color.

“We fight and fight for social justice and some people have the mentality that what we say is not true,” said sophomore Josiah Vasquez. “This shows that there is a problem we need to deal with. We can’t just run behind it and pretend it’s not there.”

Leyasia Davis, a senior, said before coming to Amherst Regional she attended Putnam Vocational Technical High School in Springfield where “the minority is the majority and the N-word gets thrown around very loosely,” even by white students.

She encounters that at Amherst High, too, particularly via social media, and when she does, she speaks up. “I say use another word. There are enough other words in your vocabulary to express yourself.”

Another commonplace offense the students say they hear is the refrain ‘That’s because you’re black’ — or fill in the blank with Latino or another racial group. It’s a jab at someone who gets a bad grade, for example, or does something stupid, they said.

Students of color generally shrug if off, said senior Ambyr Braxton, thinking they can’t change the way people act. “But you can help them realize it’s wrong.”

A steady flow of students stopped by the cafeteria table the POCU members shared with another group selling carnations and candy grams for Valentine’s Day. Many took the time to write for the clothesline:

I do not encourage discriminatory jokes.

I told a white friend to stop using the N-word.

When I hear someone use the word fag I tell them how gross and disturbing it is.

I gladly went to a dance with a disabled kid who was being picked on. ... It was the best dance ever.

I refrain from spreading hurtful rumors.

The focus was not just racial issues, but discrimination and harassment experienced by all kinds of people — women, gay individuals, special needs students. Other organizations involved were the School Climate Control Group, the Gay/Straight Alliance, Latinos Unidos, Minority Student Achievement Network and the Intergenerational Equity Cohort.

“We just want an understanding of acceptance in our school,” said Shally-Jensen, “and if not acceptance, tolerance. There’s no need for name-calling, no need for secret notes, no need for groups to feel they are secluded or excluded.”

One objective is to create an environment where all students feel safe, the POCU members said. “Not security-wise,” said Bowen, but knowing we are emotionally safe in our school.”

They don’t like the image they feel publicity over recent events has created outside of the school.

“Some of that stuff that I’ve read in the media, that there is extreme racial tension at Amherst High, is being very, very blown up,” said Shally-Jensen. “It’s almost to the point where it seems like we have black hallways and white hallways. It’s not like that.”

Bowen thinks the school district’s reputation of being forward-thinking on social justice issues has been tarnished by the reports. “We want to use this week to get people in the school talking about problems they may not be seeing,” she said.

Will the week’s events, cut short by two snow days, have an impact?

“It will for a week or two, but then it will die down,” said junior Shekena Rocke.

“This is high school, our attention spans are only so long,” added Shalley-Jensen with a laugh.

Bowen pointed out that the activities spurred helpful conversations. “Maybe they weren’t the conversations we wanted, like you know, progressive conversations, but when people hear words like white privilege on the announcements in the morning they have reactions to it and it forces them to talk about it. In that way we have succeeded.”

The students, though, are resigned to that fact that there is a large faction they will not reach.

“There are a lot of people who refuse to understand,” Bowen said. “But there’s also a great percentage of people who actually want to help and are asking questions. This is our chance to show that these issues are a lot bigger than our own experience.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@gazettenet.com.

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