Some three dozen Shelton high school and intermediate school students say they plan to bridge the racial divide which has engulfed the city — brought to prominence of late by two separate acts by intermediate school students that were called out for being racially insensitive and made national news.

The students, who make up part of the district’s newly created multicultural ambassador program, spent two hours recently in the Shelton High lecture hall discussing implicit bias and how to combat its impact with Michele Stewart-Copes of System for Education Equity & Transition Consultants LLC.

This training was the first of many upcoming sessions for these students, who, as members of the multicultural ambassador program, will be educating elementary aged children about the negative impacts of bias actions and ways to curb that behavior.

“I feel like we are opening the door for the conversation … a conversation that had been put on the back burner here,” said Shelton High student Rayonna Barrett. “This is a chance to make kids feel comfortable about talking about these situations. I feel like if we open this door, the younger generation will know what to say and do to make sure people understand how to be more tolerant.”

Jeffrey Young, co-director of the Urban Education Leaders Program at Teachers College at Columbia University, called the district’s program a creative, smart and sensitive way to help young people become educated on some complex subjects.

“It is not easy, and it takes time,” said Young about such an ambassador program, “but it is a positive, courageous step for the district to be taking. Done right, it will bring positive results for everyone in the community.

Even Greg Johnson, NAACP Valley branch president, who for weeks has criticized the school district’s handling of the recent high-profile incidents, was cautiously optimistic about the program.

“This is a great first step for Shelton on the way to denouncing bigotry and promoting diversity,” Johnson said. “Multicultural ambassador programs can be very effective agents for change, but we must remember that these programs are for the long haul, they are not quick fixes. We must also remember that this program in and of itself will not change the existing culture. The people that are the face of the community will be the change.”

Addressing concerns

Late last month, Schools Superintendent Chris Clouet presented a report to the Board of Education announcing a series of initiatives meant to address the fallout from those incidents.

Clouet’s report included the creation of the multicultural ambassadors’ program; additional diversity training for faculty; and plans for a Town Hall-style workshop for families co-facilitated by representatives of the Anti-Defamation League and NAACP.

Students welcomed the opportunity to address issues and concerns within the schools themselves.

“I feel that I have a lot to say about how I have been treated here,” said Shelton High student Kendrick Craft, a self-described transgender person of color who has lived in Shelton for two years. “I am treated so much different here than where used to live in central Florida. There is a lot more prejudice against people like me here, and I am still trying to figure out why exactly.”

Craft said the hope is, by joining the ambassadors, “I can reach the younger generation and teach them to be more tolerant of people. If one ends up being like me or identifying with a specific group, they will know it is OK and not be ashamed of it.”

Shelton High Interim Principal Kathy Riddle said the recent training was a first chance for the students to “come together, discuss what we think is our biases, our cultural competencies, and get a level of understanding about how to talk about race and diversity.”

Riddle said the plan is for the ambassadors to have more training sessions, then start working with fellow students in the high school before branching out to the elementary schools, Perry Hill and Shelton Intermediate schools.

The district’s actions are in response to two incidents involving intermediate school students. The first came a month ago, when a photo of a female student wearing blackface hit Snapchat. The girls involved apologized, but no other punishment was given. This led to NAACP members holding a rally in front of SIS prior to a Board of Education meeting.

The next incident occurred on Oct. 11, when a white student spit on a black person at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Principal Dina Marks said the student’s actions — which led to the group of 100 students being kicked out of the museum — were inappropriate and immature but not racially motivated.

Lasting change

Young, whose roles at Columbia also include professor of practice in education leadership and director of programs in education leadership, credited the district for first training the students, “giving them a knowledge base and skill set to tackle extremely difficult social topics. It may seem small, incremental, but the district is starting this from the ground up, and in time, it will lead to real substantive change.”

Young said that the program benefits the younger students, who get to learn directly from their role models, as well as the high schoolers, who are empowered and taught that they have power in people’s lives.

“What we see happening here is kids taking ownership of real issues in our country, in our world,” added Young. “They are doing something about it. They are acting. It is easy to sit at the dinner table, at the bar, at the soccer field, at the subway and complain and use labels. It is easy to be on the talk radio of life. It takes time, effort, heart and hard work to affect real change, and these kids are doing that.”

Barrett was joined by several friends, and fellow ambassadors, outside the lecture hall, all of who said that they have experienced some type of intolerant or insensitive behavior in their lives. But the group agreed this is a first step in creating a more tolerant Shelton.

“We can teach younger kids to not judge a book by its cover,” said Shelton High student Jaden Marcano.

Barrett said that, as the oldest among her siblings, she feels it is “important to educate them on these types of things especially since they are so young now. I think if they have the skills now, when they get to my age, they will be better off during their high school career. It’s a good thing for kids to have these skills.”

Alisha Baird agreed with her classmate.

“I am one of the oldest of my siblings, and I do not want them to go through what everyone else faces in high school,” said Baird. “This is a chance to teach the younger generation so we can help end this cycle.”

Shelton High student Aniya Greene said the younger students are ready and willing to be taught, and most are old enough to know right from wrong. This ambassador group will be there to reinforce and offer insight in proper behaviors.

Adia Wolfe, an intermediate school student, said inequality must be addressed, not “kept in the darkness,” which is what makes this ambassador group so important.

The students were all recommended by their teachers and counselors as perfect fits for the program.

The superintendent said he is proud of the multicultural ambassadors.

“I see this as an opportunity,” added Clouet. “How can we best prepare our children for a multicultural world? We are meeting the challenge in a thoughtful, steady manner. We are committed to providing our kids with the social and learning tools they will need.”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com