By B.C. Manion
They were born in places such as Brazil, Mexico, Haiti and Dade City, and many speak English as a second language, but they came together last week to embark on an effort to reduce bullying, improve safety and change the culture on school campuses and in district offices in Pasco County.
At the “Together We Stand – Pasco Youth and Community Summit,” keynote speaker H. Roy Kaplan, set the tone for the day by asking a series of questions. He wanted a show of hands of how many were born in Pasco County, how many in Florida, how many in a different state, how many in a different country?
Then he wanted to know how many spoke English as a second language.
The answers were telling. This group was diverse.
Once he established that, Kaplan discussed that despite different languages, cultures and colors, everyone at the summit is related to scientifically verifiable common ancestry.
The summit was called as part of a district effort to reduce bullying and violence on its campuses.
In a district with 67,000 students, Kaplan asked, “How do we create an environment where we don’t lose track of people? We need to make better people before we make better students. We need to create a sense of community in every school.”
“Bullying is not a normal part of growing up,” said Kaplan, who is an equity officer for the U.S. Office for Civil Rights.
The June 27 summit was held as part of an agreement with the Office for Civil Rights, stemming from an investigation after an incident involving Zephyrhills High students.
“We need to improve the culture and climate of our schools, so that all students feel wanted and respected and appreciated,” Kaplan said.
“This is an important day and it’s just the beginning,” Kaplan said, before the assembly broke into smaller groups to discuss the issues and offer ways to address them.
The summit drew together 158 people including district staff, students, parents, school board members and representatives from area businesses, political leaders and social agencies.
“We, as a district, understand that there are issues that we need to address,” Pasco Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning said.
Amelia Van Name Larson, assistant superintendent for student achievement, was in the session where students were discussing issues and potential solutions.
They said that racial slurs have become part of the day-to-day vocabulary, and that they’re not always intended to hurt, Van Name Larson said. They also said they hear the N-word on a daily basis, she added.
Students also noted that some teachers have favorites and that sends a bad message to kids. They also said they need a safe place to report what is happening.
Margarita Romo, recently inducted into Florida’s Civil Rights Hall of Fame for her work with farmworkers and immigrants, said “It’s not just about kids being bullied by kids. It’s also about the kids who do the bullying.
“Why do people bully? Maybe there’s a problem in their house. They don’t look at a child deep enough. ‘What is going on?’ ”
Schools need more social workers and counselors, Romo said.
Parents need help in dealing with issues, she said. They may lack the resources and the language to deal effectively with these problems.
“I’ve seen kids expelled. Their life is over,” Romo said.
Nancy Montoya, a member of the Parent Teacher Association’s board at Double Branch Elementary and John Long Middle School, said she came to the conference because she’s interested in preventing problems.
“You can’t wait for crises. You need to have empowerment and prevention in place,” said Montoya, a mother of three and former guidance counselor.
Carlos Lopez, who works with a Dade City youth program called the Teen Dream Team, said he was at the summit hoping to pick up pointers to help students dealing with problems on campus.
“There’s a lot of bullying because of the ethnicities,” Lopez said.
Carlos Segovia, 20, also of Dade City, believes many problems stem from misunderstandings because of cultural differences.
“We’re from conservative cultures. We tend to be shy. We just want to be quiet and listen,” he said, but that can be misinterpreted.
Jeff Morganstein, an administrator at Land O’ Lakes High, thinks the summit helps set the stage for change.
“Anytime we can open the dialogue we’re making a difference in a small corner,” he said. “We have to continue to do these things.”
Bethashley Cajuste, a Wesley Chapel resident who attends the International Baccalaureate Program at Land O’ Lakes High, said the summit was informative. “It was the first time I got to hear about how people felt about the issue.”
Mihail Kaburis, also of Land O’ Lakes High, said it was a good forum.
“I think it was good that students got their message out.
“Everyone’s perspective is important in making a correct solution,” Kaburis said.
Browning said he plans to hold the summit every year. But he doesn’t plan to stop there.
There will be additional opportunities to engage the community and there were will be other opportunities during the year.
“I want to change the culture of the Pasco County school district,” Browning said.
It needs to be a place where people feel safe and can express their feelings and concerns, the superintendent added.
The district’s standards need to be consistent, from school to school and school staff needs to listen, Browning said.
And, throughout the district, both adults and students need to be sending the same message, Browning said.
“This behavior cannot and will not be tolerated,” Browning said.
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