Students explore

Anti-Defamation League holds program at WCS for first time

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

In the cool, damp basement of the Old Brick Church last Thursday, Williston middle school students used laughter, honesty and open discussion to create their own warm and constructive environment. The students were in training to become “allies” for those in the school who are discriminated against or singled out by others.

The children were in their fourth and final day of “A World of Difference” diversity and anti-bias training, a program started by the Anti-Defamation League two decades ago. The training was led by facilitators Kathy Johnson, director of Equity Initiatives at Vermont Institutes; and independent consultant Robert Jones, and was coordinated by Williston Central School Guidance Counselor Carol Bick.

Johnson said the four days of workshops and training had covered a lot of ground. The discussions ranged from sexism, racism, and classism, to homophobia, discrimination, and harassment.

“This is life stuff,” Johnson said. “The kids respond very enthusiastically, and they’re curious. They want to talk about these issues.”

The 18-hour training is meant to prepare students to become Peer Trainers, who can be leaders in their school and help prevent discriminatory behavior. Central Valley Union High School has been holding the training sessions for five years, but this was the first year it was held for WCS students.

The seventh- and eighth-graders will eventually lead groups of fifth-grade students in discussions about topics most kids – not to mention adults – wouldn’t usually breach.

The training culminated in the children leading presentations they might use with the younger students.

One group led a discussion on exclusivity, by having the audience – mostly other kids – divide themselves up according to categories such as favorite ice cream flavor, birthday month or number of siblings. Then the audience was asked how they felt about being put into those groups. Some groups with only one person, such as one seventh-grader who said he has 23 siblings, felt isolated, and larger groups were generally more comfortable.

Johnson said the kids felt that adults in Williston schools were very conscientious of bullying, but there were still some issues when adults were not present.

“Part of the challenge is for these kids to become leaders by example within the school,” Johnson said. “So they refrain from bullying, and become allies instead of bystanders, … who will step forward when they see something.”

Bick stressed that the program was not just about bullying, which the school has worked hard to combat.

“We’ve done a really good job with bullying,” she said. “But there is still a lot of work to do around differences and acceptance of differences.”

Jones, who has been working with the ADL as a trainer and consultant for 15 years, said the Williston students had truly taken to the program.

“These kids, they’re open, smart, they’re grasping the theory and concepts,” Jones said. “I would say they are in the top five, of middle school kids, who grasp it.”

Jones said that Vermont poses unique challenges that are important to discuss, such as sexual orientation and class differences.

“I also see the challenges of the whole foster care system and adoptions,” Jones said. “Even though there might not be a whole lot of people of color up here, there’s a lot of families and couples who are adopting children from all over the world that are in schools.”

The kids themselves seemed to have become more aware of biases that others – and themselves – might have, and felt they were developing the tools to deal with them. A group of seventh-graders discussed their thoughts while munching on pizza during a lunch break.

“I’ve learned a lot of leadership skills,” Derek Goodwin said. “It’s taught me not to judge or stereotype as much, because I stereotype quite a bit.”

Evan Healy said he felt that the program would be useful at Williston Central School, and it would especially help students be more comfortable with the relative lack of diversity in Vermont.

“I’ve lived in three different states,” Healy said. “I really wish that this was going on when I was in fifth grade.”

Healy said the program has also helped him make a new friend, whom he may not have known how to approach before.

“When I first saw him I thought he was a little weird,” said Healy of fellow student and trainee Khanh Nguyen. “Now I think he’s really cool. And he’s really strong, too. He could lift up this whole couch with us three on it.”

“It gets me to talk more than I used to,” Nguyen said. “It’s helped me work with a group better.”

Bick, who organized the training, said she considered the training an initial success.

“The kids really got a lot out of it,” she said. “Everyone thought it was worthwhile and was glad they did it.”

The “A World of Difference Institute” training program was started by the Anti-Defamation League in 1985. The ADL is a nonprofit organization founded in 1913 to help stop discrimination against Jews.

Numerous academic studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of the training. A 2004-2005 study by the Yale University Institution for Social and Policy Studies on the World of Difference training found that the program was very successful in changing students’ behavior.

“One of the most exciting findings of the study was that Peer Trainers were recognized by their Friends and Peers as people who were most likely in the school to stand up for other students who were being teased or insulted,” the study says.

The study, which surveyed students from 10 U.S. schools, included data from Vermont’s Twinfield Union School in Plainfield, Johnson said.