This is the first in a five-part series published by our public media partneras at Fronteras. Listen to the accompanying radio piece.
PHOENIX — Gilbert, Ariz. is a bedroom community outside of Phoenix that has seen explosive population growth in recent decades. As it grew from a small, conservative farming town into a more diverse community, some notable tensions arose.
“In 1993, our detectives started to identify in the town of Gilbert a gang that called themselves White Power,” said police spokesman Sergeant Bill Balafas.
Six years later, a spin-off gang called the Devil Dogs emerged among football players at Highland High School.
“Their belief system, we learned, was for white people and anti everything else,” Balafas said. “So they were racists, but that didn't mean they didn't beat up white people, they just beat up everybody.”
A victim’s face was so severely beaten, he required multiple plastic surgeries. One incident was classified as a hate crime. At least six gang members were sent to jail.
“I was blown away,” said Christopher Mack, a longtime Gilbert resident. “This is where I lived, this is where my wife and I, we bought our home, and would some day raise our kids, and I thought, man oh man, I don't what my kid being in a school like that.”
Back then, Mack had just begun working as a counselor at Gilbert High School.
“The community rose up and realized, we need to do something about this,” Mack said.
A local businessman made a donation to the Arizona chapter of the Anti-Defamation League to teach tolerance in Gilbert schools.
Now, more than a decade later, Mack still oversees that program at Gilbert High.
The heart of it is known as “peer training.” A group of upperclassmen leaders are designated as trainers. They divide all the school’s freshmen into small groups, and lead them in a series of trainings about prejudice and bullying.
“If those Devil Dogs, were on our campus today, they would be identifiable a lot quicker,” Mack said. “Because there would be a group of kids who would say, ‘Hey, these kids are doing stuff and it is not right.’”
At a coffee shop tucked into one of Gilbert’s many strip malls, two of Mack’s most recent peer trainers sat down to chat. Colleen Sullivan and Jillian Karner, both 18, both just graduated from Gilbert High School.
Sullivan remembers when she was a freshman, she immediately noticed students self-segregating.
“I had asked a friend for directions for a classroom and she told me you walk down this hallway and then you turn right at the ‘Mexican stairs,’” Sullivan said.
Only Latino kids ate lunch and hung out at that stairwell.
“It was just strange how you would refer to a location in a school,” Sullivan said. “But what was even stranger to me that I knew what she was talking about. That is when it really hit home for me that I was living in a community where labels were determining who people could associate with, and I wasn't OK with that.”
As peer trainers, they push the freshman to break down those divides. They encourage students to examine the words they use everyday, since they say harsh language can quickly escalate to violence.
“Well the words that mostly pop up are words like gay,” Karner said.
As in, using the word “gay” to describe something bad, or uncool.
“Retard or retarded is a really common one as well,” Sullivan chimed in.
“And the n-word,” Karner said. “We have kind of a large black population at our school, so we discuss whether it is appropriate to say it or not even if you heard someone who is African-American use that word.”
The women say they believe facilitating these conversations is making the school culture more tolerant and inclusive.
“We constantly refer to the Gilbert school district as the model program,” said Melissa Medvin of the Arizona Anti-Defamation League. She says Gilbert is the only district in the state that has the peer training program in all of the district high schools.
“They saw a need in their school,” Medvin said. “They figured out how to meet that need with this program. And they subsequently built a positive environment.”
The drama surrounding the Devil Dogs has also prompted the town to create a human relations commission to promote diversity. The commission recently merged with an arts council, prompting some residents to say it is deviating from its original mission.
Still, just this month, the commission held a meeting to discuss the harassment of a same-sex couple and their children at a Gilbert home. The meeting facilitated a dialogue between the police chief and concerned residents who thought the local police weren't doing enough to help.
A few days later, about 50 people supporting the couple rallied on a busy Gilbert intersection, holding signs that said “Stop Hate,” and “Celebrate Diversity.”
It's clear that just as committed community members are organizing for change, challenges still persist. This spring, Gilbert made national headlines when famed white supremacist J.T. Ready killed himself and four others in May.
“We’ve come a long way, but there is still so much work that needs to be done,” Mack said. “There is always going to be someone, some person that comes in with some form of hate.”
Which is why he believes they must stay vigilant, and continue teaching tolerance to the next generation.