“We felt like we were part of something bigger, sharing what we were doing, and the idea of being leaders was very inspiring.”
— Becki Cohn Vargas, Ed.D.
Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas is a veteran educator and longtime ally of Not In Our Town. In this piece, penned in 2008, Dr. Cohn-Vargas lays out the lessons from the Palo Alto Unified School District, which embraced Not In Our School activities in 2007. Although Dr. Cohn-Vargas is no longer with the district, she has been instrumental in developing Not In Our School programs and the Palo Alto district’s Not In Our Schools month continues to thrive.
Since 2007, the Palo Alto Unified School District has sponsored Not In Our School Palo Alto, a districtwide annual month-long event where students, teachers, administrators and parents engage in activities and discussions about how to address hate, bullying, and harassment at school.
The program began with a joint school-community film screening. We partnered with Not In Our Town to present Not in Our Town Northern California: When Hate Happens Here. More than 300 people, including students, parents and teachers, attended the session. Along with the screening, we trained teachers to use Not In Our Town curriculum. As a result of the powerful response, we decided to continue with follow-up activities.
But before we had time to organize more events, one of our Palo Alto High School students was harassed, her backpack marked with anti-gay hate graffiti, and her iPod stolen. In response, we began working together with the students at Palo Alto High School and decided to do a month of activities called Not in Our Schools Month.
It quickly spread to Gunn, the other high school in the district. Students told us, “We should not only do this one time, it needs to happen every year.”
Middle School: Students Take on Bullying
In the first year, the high schools readily embraced the idea of doing Not in Our School activities. The following year, we expanded Not In Our Schools month to our middle school campuses with a focus on ways to address bullying. Our slogan was "Be REAL, Respect, Educate, Accept, and Listen.” In one of the most powerful activities, one middle school piped the film Not In Our Town into every classroom, followed by another school-made video of a small panel of their students discussing the film and their experiences with discrimination and prejudice. Then each classroom held their own discussion of these important issues. The middle schools have continued to participate in NIOS month and the elementary schools joined as well.
A Film and a Play Draw New Interest in Not In Our School
During the 2007-08 school year, a film crew from The Working Group captured Not In Our Schools events, which was highly motivational. We felt like we were part of something bigger, sharing what we were doing, and the idea of being leaders was very inspiring. In the spring of 2009, we kicked off Not In Our Schools month with a community event and premiere of the documentary that The Working Group captured the year before, which was very exciting.
That year, we also reached just about every elementary school, with a play we commissioned, called Oskar and Big Bully Battle, about students learning to stand up for what’s right and to stop bullying. We had companion curriculum and also held a series of presentations about bullying for parents. This play, which presents the issues of bullying and effectively promotes the idea of being an upstander, has continued to be presented at schools around Northern California.
Not In Our Schools: A Month to Raise Awareness about Hate
Over the years, more and more schools in the district embraced the month-long annual event. Posters and buttons were distributed across the five secondary schools in the district saying no to hate, bullying, and harassment for any reason, particularly religious and anti-gay intolerance, sexism and racism.
The month features a series of activities at the five secondary campuses, sponsored by a coalition of student clubs, staff teams, school counselors, and administrators that include classroom activities, assemblies, speakers, informational booths and cultural events at lunchtime, and screenings of Not in Our Town films. Some schools have also set up "stereotype pools," in which people write an ugly stereotype they want to see eliminated on a piece of rice paper. When they put it into the pool, it dissolves. We also have sponsored panel discussions for parents from across the district, featuring students sharing their experiences and discussing ways to make our schools safe. Several art teachers have made student art contests and exhibitions based on the Not in Our Town curriculum.
Key Lessons: Encouraging Upstander Action Among Students
Each year, as our Not in Our Schools Month grows, we reach more students, parents, and teachers. We’ve really worked at building a network of teachers, staff and students, all taking leadership in organizing the month of activities, and encourage the champions of this work to institutionalize it in their own school. We’ve also learned that each school has to make it their own, so we don’t dictate that every school should have a certain committee or a certain format. We discovered that it’s also really good to have a broader community event to pull everyone together to give the month the feeling of a district-wide effort.
School administrators and teachers report that they think Not in Our School is influencing the schools in a very positive way; it brings out student leadership and gives voice to students who are not usually at the center of things. And it teaches students to be upstanders, not bystanders, when they see hate or discrimination. I believe that if you have talked about what it means to be an upstander, and why it is important to speak up or stand up, you’re more likely to find the courage to do it yourself.
The idea of having an annual event has set a precedent that, at least once a year, we’re going to tackle these issues and build awareness with our students. All year long, it serves to remind people this is what we stand for. But we also recognize this work has to be linked to the challenge of continually addressing tolerance and creating environments where all students feel safe and included.