A Facebook friend posted a link to an article from yesterday’s New York Times. The article, titled Christian Group Finds Gay Agenda in an Anti-Bullying Day, reports on the campaign by the American Family Association; a conservative evangelical group; to stop schools from participating in “Mix It Up At Lunch Day”.
“Mix It Up At Lunch Day” is a program initiated 11 years ago by the Southern Poverty Law Center to encourage students to meet fellow students from diverse backgrounds in an effort to break up cliques and prevent bullying. School children around the country are encouraged to hang out with someone they normally might not speak to.
The American Family Association asserts this is an attempt to promote a gay agenda and asks parents to keep their children home from school on that day and to contact their school administrators and explain why. The NY Times quotes the SPLC indicating that, as of Friday, 200 schools had informed them they would be dropping out of the “Mix It Up At Lunch Day” program.
The article mentions two specific schools; one in Pennsylvania who will continue to participate and cites success in communicating with concerned parents to clarify some of the information in the AFA campaign that may be misleading. A second school in Georgia is cited for having canceled the ‘Mix It Up…’. Their principal indicates their teachers were too busy trying to meet basic state teaching requirements.
The schools and the administrators were mentioned by name so, for the first time in my life in this kind of situation, I emailed them.
It was with mixed emotions that I read the New York Times piece this morning about the controversy surrounding “Mix It Up Day”. I support this effort and feel strongly that it is up to each institution to ensure that this event promotes no agenda other than a respect for diversity and an intolerance for bullying.
To Mr. [PA School Administrator]; Thank You for your courage and leadership at [Named School]. Your school’s insight about the connection between tragedies like the shootings at Columbine High School and bullying demonstrate a commitment to the highest meaning of “education”.
To [GA Administrator]; It is disheartening to hear that respect for diversity and intolerance for bullying are not characteristics you feel you can support at [Named School] I find it sad that ‘bullying is free speech’ is the message you choose to send to the young “global citizens” in your charge. I am not part of any letter-writing campaign organized by any extremist group so I have no expectation that you will change your position. I would ask, however, that, at minimum, you have the integrity to remove the reference on your website to “The Character Word for October is Respect”. Given your recent actions the kindest interpretation I can ascribe is that you intend it to be some kind of ironic joke.
The quote usually attributed to Edmund Burke comes to mind. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” When I was coming of age that was usually expressed as the slightly less sexist; “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem”. For better and for worse, you are both setting this example for young people.
I received a response back from the administrator in the Pennsylvania school.
Please see my original message to our community (attached). We have a sizable Christian population in this area, many of whom are, politically-speaking, quite conservative. However, we also have a very proud local tradition of tolerance stretching back nearly three centuries, and promoted by similarly devout Christians.
Therefore, the premise that Mix-It-Up Day is somehow essentially anti-Christian because it challenges students to reach out to those who come from different backgrounds, hold different beliefs, or are members of different ethnic or racial groups seems to run directly counter to precedents set by the religious communities that have made our corner of Pennsylvania their home since the colonial era.
As a Public Charter School in Pennsylvania, we have taken a position that all of our students have the right to express themselves freely, and as a result, we have very well-organized (extra-curricular) groups of students in our Upper School who are members (for example) of our Gay-Straight Alliance and/or members of our on-campus Christian Club. I am very happy to say that despite the diverse opinions which our students (and their families) may hold, all of these groups treat each other respectfully, and are committed to mutual support and respect.
Perhaps, in an atmosphere like ours, students will feel less likely to experience the kind of isolation and hopelessness that have led to so many cases of outwardly and inwardly directed violence over the last two decades. There are times, especially during the adolescence, when most students feel awkward, out-of-place, and alone – as educators, I believe we owe it to our students to establish a culture of caring and concern which helps them to weather what can often be the most tumultuous period of their lives: Mix-It-Up day can be a very powerful tool for communicating this message. I think we have abundant examples of what can occur when we do not take time to promote this kind of atmosphere.
Thank you for your support, and for your belief in promoting tolerance and civility among the next generation.
The attachment referenced is a letter sent 10/10/2012 to the school’s families.
“Over the course of the last few weeks, a number of our parents have been receiving letters and emails from a handful of lobbying groups regarding “Mix-It-Up Day.” This event has been a tradition at [school] for many years, and in my opinion, has contributed to the atmosphere of mutual support, tolerance and respect which is such an integral part of our […] school culture.
The email campaign against Mix-It-Up is framed in clumsy and highly-politicized language and very crudely attempts to oversimplify the event as a heavy-handed experiment in social engineering.
I would characterize anti-Mix-It-Up emails as either oblivious to the seriousness of issues like bullying and harassment, or deliberately pitched to undo the very significance gains schools like ours have made in making our learning environment as positive, accepting and tolerant as possible.
Mix-It-Up-Day was initiated through the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project in 2002. You may be familiar with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s work from its legal action campaign against the Ku Klux Klan, one of our country’s oldest and most violent hate groups.
The idea behind Mix-It-Up Day is very simple: the event encourages students to sit with someone new in the cafeteria for just one day. School Cafeterias are the focus of Mix It Up because that’s where a school’s social boundaries are most obvious. Thousands of schools nationwide participate in the event this year.
When I was a student, especially during Middle and High School, I remember our cafeteria being a place in which groups of students were self-segregated into cliques, and the anxiety associated with trying to “fit in” was considerable. I am certain that many [school] parents have shared this experience.
One of the great things about Mix-It-Up Day is that it provides an ideal mechanism for defusing the social tensions that create these cliques and enables students to communicate, and reach out across social, racial, and cultural boundaries.
As teaching Tolerance Director Maureen Costello points out: “when people step out of their cliques and get to know someone, they realize just how much they have in common.” As an administrator and as an American, I strongly believe this is a goal that all of us should embrace.”
I have not received a response from the Georgia School administrator.