"Voices United" Workshops Train Students to Recognize and Combat Negative Culture and Climate Behaviors

Every student learns best when they feel safe in their school community, when they feel supported and understood. Building and sustaining a positive and inclusive community is not just the work of the teachers, staff, and administrators. Student leadership plays a significant part in creating a school climate where young people can thrive. Voices United (VU) training, held annually at Arlington High School, was designed to help develop the skills young people need to create a caring and nurturing community.

This year’s VU workshops, offered to all ninth grade students, were held during October and November. On each day, inclusive groups of 40-50 students joined trained facilitators to understand and address instances of bullying, bias, harassment, and degrading language among their peers. The first half of the five-hour day was devoted to understanding the diversity of the AHS community, the impacts of such negative behaviors, and to developing empathy. The second half was designed to help the attendees understand what they, as 14-15 year old students, can do to combat these behaviors and support each other.

The workshops were very intense, and included team building activities, large and small group discussions and sharing, hearing from the facilitators, and opportunities for students to speak about their own experiences observing or being on the receiving end of bullying, bias, harassment, or degrading language. The leaders strived to have the students create and lead the conversations. The attendees learned that even when bad behaviors are done in jest with innocent intent, the harmful impact can be serious and severe, and how everyone can be hurt.

After being presented with scenarios of different types of harassment, bullying, bias, and disrespectful language, the students came together in small groups to discuss what they have heard and talk about how they could intervene. They reflected on how they can encourage others to stop, when they can speak up, when it is important to report what they have witnessed to an adult, and how they can reach out to those who might be affected so that the victims understand they are not alone.

The workshops were led by a team of trained facilitators that included APS Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging, and Justice Margaret Credle Thomas, METCO Director Richelle Smith, METCO Social Worker Shayla Lowe, AHS Librarian Stacy Kitsis, Deans Robert DiLoreto, Veronica Tivnan, and Paul McCarthy, and Assistant Principal Bill McCarthy. Principal Dr. Matthew Janger, who took part in all seven sessions, was impressed by how reflective and thoughtful the students were. They talked about reaching out to those who are alone in the cafeteria, and how they should check in with their friends more often. He heard them educating each other, and he came away with a better understanding of the young people. The groups were inclusive, and Dr. Janger observed the attendees connecting to students they might not have in the past.

This year’s workshops evolved out of an initiative started in 2015 to gather information on school climate and inclusion. Human rights educator and consultant Steve Wessler held focus groups with students to gather information about their experiences with bullying, bias, harassment, and degrading language within AHS. The level of negative interaction among students was concerning, and Voices United was born to begin the process of creating a more positive school culture.

Dr. Janger reports that although the days were very demanding, the participants' level of empathy, interest, and commitment to having positive school experiences created a very hopeful environment. It was clear that everyone wants kindness to spread throughout AHS, and student feedback on the day is generally positive. One outcome observed by facilitators and other adults after Voices United takes place is that they see more students coming forward to look for support and get help than they have in the past. Feedback collected on school culture this fall is uniformly positive. The VU initiative has become an important way to help Arlington High School take responsibility for providing a safe and supportive learning environment for all students.