UCHRC Mission: To intervene to eradicate the conditions that cause bias and hate

— A Bias & Prejudice Reduction Pilot Program for Youth

One initiative the Union County Human Relations Commissioners have actively pursued is the creation of a program targeting impressionable high school, middle- and elementary school students focused on Bias and Prejudice Reduction. For the past three years, since the 2009-2010 school year, Linden High School history teacher Monica Goncalves (PHOTO: left front) has graciously allowed the Union County Human Relations Commission to explore ways to engage her juniors and seniors in dialogue and education about the important issues of our time, including sensitizing them to the ways words and actions can foster bias, prejudice, hate and violence; empowering them to take a stand to watch their own behaviors; and to stand up and speak out on behalf of others who are being targeted and victimized.  The goal of this program and all of the programs we undertake, is to create awareness and, ultimately, foster understanding and respect.

The name of this pilot program captures another key ingredient of this program:  PASS THE MESSAGE ON. The older students then repackage what they have learned, and deliver this message to students in the lower grades.

The key partners who are developing, presenting and ultimately packaging this program to roll out to other Union County schools are Lt. Keith Aslin, Linden Police Department’s Juvenile and Bias Officer, Dr. Paula Rodriguez Rust (Spectrum Diversity LLC), a sociologist and diversity educator specializing in social psychology, survey research, statistical analysis, racial and ethnic relations, and gender & sexuality, Linden High School teacher Monica Goncalves, and UCHRC Commissioner Karen Positan.

The program has evolved over the three years it has been presented.  The first session provides students with a historical overview of acts of bias, prejudice and hate.  The second presentation, which addresses the social aspects, brings it home, with a discussion of how bias and prejudice affect our lives individually, and what we can do about it.

As a homework assignment, students are asked to write about their personal experiences and any insights this new awareness has given them.  Although bullying is not mentioned, bullying and bias-based bullying is often brought up by the students.  During the entire presentation, students are taught some known and effective methods for addressing bias, prejudice, stereotyping and bullying, and how to put them into practice.

Because the Commissioners understand that youth are better influenced by other youth rather than adults, the goal of the program has been to co-develop an insightful and sensitive educational program that can be presented to high school students, that the older high school students can then repackage and present to the lower high school grades, middle school and elementary school students.

The seniors Pass The Message On to the younger students through mentoring.    To prepare for their field trips, the high school students work together in smaller groups to develop a brief program they can present to the younger students in a classroom setting to engage them in a conversation about bias, prejudice and bullying.  Many choose to use role plays to demonstrate what can happen, and how the younger students can better respond.  The program kicks off with an assembly presentation, with the high school volunteers reading some of the writings that have been collected through the three-year process to the younger students before returning to the individual classrooms, with each high school group presenting the program they developed to the younger students.

Last year, 25 high school students visited a local elementary school and a middle school to present the program.  This year, the high school seniors will be mentoring high school freshman.

In the first two days of the program presentation, the initial attitude of most of the high school students was, “We can’t stop that here. This is HIGH SCHOOL!  Are you kidding!” but at the debriefing following the elementary and middle school presentations, they had so absorbed and internalized the messages that they had tried to pass on to the young students that they said things like, “The middle schoolers wouldn’t listen to us!”

The high school students forgot that they had  almost the same attitudes at the start of the program.  Having to take the message and “Pass It On” to younger students caused them to internalize it themselves.  They became representatives of the message, and as a result took the message to heart.

Afterwards, the elementary students also wrote letters to the high school students thanking them for coming for a visit, which are priceless to read and which reinforce that the Message had been Passed Along, delivered and understood.

Lt. Aslin (2011),  Dr. Rodriguez Rust (2012) and Commissioner Positan (2012) were each honored by the New Jersey State Bias Officers Association, which recognized the significance of this program and their achievements in the field combating bias intimidation.