Lenape Regional district, Anti-Defamation League, put pupils at forefront

LRHSD students and teachers created lessons that discuss bullying, racial injustice and the fight for equality.

By Anthony J. Mazziotti II

“The wind of change, whatever it is, blows most freely through an open mind,” wrote Katharine Whitehorn in 1981’s “View from a Column.”

Though Whitehorn’s words are nearing the ruby anniversary, they are just as true today as the day she wrote them. Keeping an open mind and being ready for change when the time is right is the key to thriving in today’s world. 

Though things surely aren’t getting easier, the Lenape Regional School District takes a unique approach to the aforementioned open-mindedness and preparation for change. When it comes to tackling tough topics like bullying, racism and anti-Semitism, the same tired, unenthusiastic message spread en masse would go in one ear and out the other with very little takeaway. So the  district sought a different avenue toward its goal: The students are in charge.

Through the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), active in all four high schools, students put together lessons with teacher assistance that focus on issues like bullying, racial injustice and the fight for equality.

“The league was founded because of defamation against people who are Jewish,” Shawnee school counselor Erin O’Neill described. “Now it’s kind of blossomed into defamation of anyone, stereotype bias against any group of people or person. Their goal is to reduce that or eliminate it.”

When it comes to involvement with the ADL, teachers identify student leaders – be it a member of the soccer team, band saxophone player or the quiet kid in class whose heart is in the right place — to spread the message that the league, quite literally, doesn’t discriminate.

From there, students apply and are trained by peers to educate the rest of the school about reducing or eliminating discrimination.

“I think it’s important, because right now especially, the times are changing based off of politics or people’s opinions,” Shawnee senior and peer trainer Olivia Marr said. “I know that if you compare it to 60 years ago, like my parent’s generation, it was way different than how times are today.

“People are understanding and very open on how to make people feel comfortable and not make them feel discriminated against.”

Cherokee junior and peer trainer Annabelle Smith likes the bond created with all students. 

“Normally, juniors and seniors wouldn’t be interacting with freshmen a lot of the time,” she noted. “Here, we get to learn together in a way that you wouldn’t get in English class.

“When you’re talking to people your own age and it’s actually a discussion instead of a lecture,” she added, “you feel much more included because you all have something to say and you’re listening to each other instead of just one person talking.”

Seneca junior Tess Strittmatter echoed that sentiment, common among students.

“I think that there’s a lot that goes on in high school; it’s a very important and defining time in their life,” she said. “Seeing people their age with similar lifestyles as them going out of their way to fight against things, which takes a lot of courage and energy, is helpful.”

Kambrianna Corona, a school psychologist at Lenape, recognizes the staff isn’t always perfect when it comes to planning presentations and activities that have  students at the forefront.

“The students are seeing firsthand everything that’s going on,” she explained. “They’re the ones that are really experiencing it and unfortunately, as a staff,  there’s certain things we overlook, so having them in our school is great. They bring us issues we can try to resolve.”

Lenape representative Udai Singh, a senior who’s been involved in the ADL program since his freshman year, built on Corona’s response.

“Discussion is important,” he noted. “We’re not going to sit down for 30 minutes during a meeting or assembly and solve racism or solve bullying. There’s no easy solution, right?”

“It becomes a cycle where we begin to talk to each other, and when students talk to each other, they tend to hear each other out more because their perspectives are more relatable,” Singh added. “Through that, we’re able to sit down and it allows kids to be themselves, be free with their speech, that is a true learning curve. Then it becomes a cycle: We learn in that room you have to apply it to the class, apply it to everyday life. For me, personally, that’s where I change. Hearing other people’s stories is constantly changing me and my mindset.”

Though the two haven’t spoken, Singh and Cherokee English teacher Maggie Fynan have similar ideologies.

“I love seeing the effects it’s had and how the kids respond to it,” Fynan said of the program. “I haven’t been involved since the beginning, but I love doing it. If schools don’t have it, I think it’s something that’s worth the investment of time and energy.”

With teachers by their sides, the students are at the helm in the Lenape district,   making a positive impact on their classmates through relatable lessons taught intimately in the classroom.

“It’s nice to see your peers kind of taking the stage and being the teacher,” Seneca history instructor Casey McHugh said. “I think it’s an awesome program. We hope, and our goal is, to make sure Seneca is a very comfortable space for everyone.”

“The time frame right now, everyone is so divided in this country and I feel that the Anti-Defamation League can help us come together and realize we’re all people,” O’Neill concluded. 

“We all deserve respect regardless of our race, our religion, our interest or activities. That’s what’s important.”