Students, teachers and administrators in the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District are committed to making their schools welcoming and accepting, and a place where there is zero tolerance for acts of hate such as antisemitism.
For Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — students across the district listened to Marion Blumenthal-Lazan, a Holocaust survivor, just before spring break in April. The program was recorded and shown in all district school buildings.
But seniors in Calhoun High School’s leadership classes wanted to take the district’s efforts a step further. Last week, the seniors began a two-part presentation for seventh- and eighth-grade students at Merrick Avenue Middle School, teaching the importance of decision making and understanding the consequences of using hateful symbols and speech.
Christina Cone, the social studies chair at both Calhoun and Merrick Avenue, said they began leading a Holocaust lesson with seventh-grade students last year, as a way to add onto the curriculum. Holocaust education is already included in the eighth-grade curriculum.
When the leadership students were asked if they wanted to participate in the lesson this year, Cone said they immediately agreed to the idea. The leadership program encourages students who take the course to become leaders in their community — by participating in projects and learning vital teamwork skills. The program is open to sophomores, juniors and seniors.
In Merrick Avenue’s seventh-grade social studies classes last week, four teams of Calhoun leadership students presented a series of PowerPoint slides. They offered examples of symbols that have a hateful meaning, emphasizing the swastika and its origins and how it became a negative symbol when used by the Nazi party. Adolf Hitler’s regime was responsible for the atrocities of the Holocaust, which killed an estimated 11 million people, most of whom were Jewish.
Cone said that Bellmore-Merrick’s schools have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to acts of hate. She said that when instances are reported, an immediate investigation is launched and a written report is sent to the state. Consequences are determined on a case-by-case basis, but usually result in a suspension.
The presentation also showed the middle school classes that hateful acts do occur in their own communities or towns close to home. Calhoun’s leadership students emphasized the seriousness of using hateful speech or symbols and explained that not only could it get people in trouble in school, but also with police.
A “turn-and-talk” portion of the lesson allowed the seventh-graders to talk to one another about instances of hate they may have witnessed.
Brian Joyce, the instructor of Calhoun’s senior leadership course, said he thought the lesson coming from Calhoun students would be more meaningful to the middle school classes than if a teacher taught them.
“When students hear a message from other students, it’s more powerful, especially from older students who they look up to and they respect,” he said. “They hear from adults — their teachers — all the time. So sometimes those voices are drowned out. When it comes from their peers, I think it adds a lot more power and meaning.”
Emily Livingston, a senior in the leadership class, said she hoped the presentations would inspire the younger students to be good and respectful people.
“We’re leaving Calhoun, and right now, we want to make sure that the kids coming in hold up to the standard of Calhoun,” she said, “so they’re respectful of everyone, and so that everyone knows the right thing to do and to make sure that everyone’s high school experience is good.”
Leadership student Sophia Trippicione added, “We know that particularly antisemitism, but hate speech as a whole, is a really big issue right now. We want to do the best we can to make a positive impact and to try to stop it from happening in the middle schools and high schools in the future.”
Mariel Pusateri, another senior, said the leadership classes inspire change. “It’s really exciting to be part of making a change, even if it’s just within our own community, because that’s what’s important,” she said. “Little change affects big change, so we’re happy to work together and try to help the community in anyway possible.”
While the presentations for the seventh-grade concluded last week, Calhoun’s leadership classes will be back at Merrick Avenue on May 15, to conduct their lesson with the eighth-grade, which will focus less on hate symbols and more on hate speech.