BERKSHIRES – With the rise of anti-Semitism and hate that has occurred in schools in the state, the Berkshire County Superintendents’ Roundtable has partnered with the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), to implement the ADL’s A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE® Institute Peer Training Program for Berkshire County school districts.
According to the ADL, there were 93 reported anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts schools in 2017. That was an 86 percent increase as compared to 2016, which saw 50 incidents.
“Record numbers of communities are being impacted by anti-Semitism as disseminating hate becomes increasingly mainstream,” said ADL New England Regional Director Robert Trestan. “Every week Massachusetts school children are faced with anti-Semitism in school, jeopardizing safety and learning. School officials are rising above the toxic environment by taking incidents seriously and integrating anti-bias education into the curriculum. Now more than ever, teachers, parents and community leaders need to step up as role models who denounce all forms of hate and bigotry. Education and leadership are our best hope for eliminating hate from Massachusetts.”
A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE’s Peer Training program currently operates in more than 100 middle and high schools across New England. It is now being implemented in the 12 middle and high schools in Berkshire County.
The school districts and schools involved are Mount Greylock Regional School in the Mount Greylock Regional School District; Drury High School in the North Adams Public Schools; Wahconah Regional High School and Nessacus Regional Middle School in the Central Berkshire Regional School District; the Pittsfield Public Schools’ Taconic and Pittsfield High Schools, and Reid and Herberg Middle Schools; Lenox Public Schools’ Lenox Memorial Middle and High School; Monument Mountain Regional High School and Monument Valley Regional Middle School in Great Barrington; and Mount Everett Regional School in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District.
“At a time when schools are experiencing unprecedented conflict and bias incidents, schools in Berkshire County are empowering their students and staff with the means to model civil discourse and facilitate positive social change,” Trestan said.
The Peer Training Program, which has operated in New England since 1999, provides middle and high school students with anti-bias education and training to lead developmentally-appropriate activities and discussions with their peers on explicit and implicit bias pertaining to race, religion, ethnicity, culture, and other aspects of human diversity. Participants also develop safe and practical prevention and response strategies to address prejudicial behaviors, including ways in which young people can become allies for peers who are targeted.
“Our students need to have role models for civil discourse and inclusion free of subjective judgments and prejudice,” explained Barbara Malkas, superintendent of North Adams Public Schools. “The A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE curriculum supports students in becoming role models for our schools with the knowledge and skills to change the conversation and decrease incidents that inhibit the educational process.”
Twenty teachers from the school districts attended training to become program advisors at the beginning of the school year in September. Each school schedules their in-school A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE training and teachers who are program advisors work with ADL representatives to train students to become the peer counselors.
Already, training for students has begun or been completed at Mount Greylock, the schools in Pittsfield and Great Barrington, training will begin in North Adams after the first of the new year.
At each school, the teachers involved choose a group of 25 to 30 students that they think will be effective peer leaders.
“These are students who represent their school’s demographics in terms of racial diversity, gender diversity; also in terms of different peer groups – making sure there are different participants that might not be just the honor roll students, but also students with special needs, students in the band, student athletes,” explained ADL educator Phil Fogelman. “Those students who are selected go through the total 18 hours of intensive, anti-bias training and facilitator skill building. At the middle school we trained 7th and 8th graders, and at the high school in grades 9 through 12.”
When the students are ready — approximately six weeks after the 18 hours of training — they will go into classrooms and work with other students to present activity and lead discussion on diversity and bias-related topics and issues.
Naomi Tayi, a Reid Middle School student, was chosen as one of the A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE program leader’s at her school.
“I was a little nervous to participate in the training because I was unsure about the topics. After participating, I now feel better prepared to address issues of prejudice and discrimination. As a leader, it is now my job to educate other students and I am excited to be part of this program.”
“This is a proactive program that is designed to increase awareness of and identify strategies to address bias one might encounter, support those who might be targeted in a school community with bias, and actively promote respect for human differences and a welcoming and inclusive learning environment,” Fogelman said.
But the training can also come into play in case any incidents of hate or bias occur.
“The expectation is the student program leaders will work with their peers so if situations arise, the peers can address it or work with their peers on it,” said Fogelman.
Reid Middle School’s Principal Linda Whitacre has been impressed with the program and the way her students have committed to it.
“The students have shown so much growth during their training sessions, and are eager to bring their skills into classrooms of their peers,” she said. “Some of our immediate goals are to provide young people with the opportunity to learn about and address bias-related issues and their manifestations, as well as to foster positive peer influence to promote a more inclusive and respectful school community.”
Underwriting the program’s launch in Berkshire County schools was made possible through a grant from the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, with additional support provided by the ADL New England Regional Office and some local school districts.
CAP: Students and peer program leaders at Reid Middle School in Pittsfield participate in an anti-bias exercise.