Cooper Aspegren and Catalina Zhou
The recent focus on the Office for Civil Rights case involving a middle school bullying incident highlighted the presence of intolerance within the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD). In response, The Oracle decided to examine the level of acceptance the Gunn community fosters with regards to its diversity.
Acceptance vs. tolerance
For Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) President Andrew Schroeder, “tolerance” and “acceptance,” although often associated with each other, have completely different meanings. According to Schroeder, tolerance implies that a person endures the presence of another person or thing viewed as undesirable; acceptance entails the embracement by society of a unique person, difference or viewpoint. “The level that we want to be at is accepting,” Schroeder said. “I think we’re at a fairly tolerant level already, but we definitely need to get to the point where just because someone’s sexual orientation or race is different doesn’t mean [he or she] needs to be tolerated.”
For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students, GSA intends to provide a community that accepts and understands them. “It’s that protected environment where they can say whatever they’re feeling and it’s okay,” Schroeder said.
Special Education Instructional Supervisor Shivani Pulimamidi finds Gunn to have a highly accepting school environment. However, she also believes some forms of prejudice occupy a latent presence within the school community. “At Gunn, discrimination is rarely overt,” Pulimamidi said. “However, there is a more subtle form of discrimination evident sometimes and it may be because most people are not aware that what they are doing may be in fact, be discriminating.”
Pulimamidi oversees a department that serves an estimated ten percent of the student body. According to Pulimamidi, many of the students involved in the program and related support programs, such as Focus on Success and English Language Learners and Opportunity, face subtle forms of discrimination in classrooms and elsewhere on Gunn campus. She believes students in the Special Education program are targets of both intentional and unintentional discrimination because of their stark differences with other students.
Discrimination also exists in the Gunn community in the form of racial stereotypes. Students who identify themselves as Asian, who according to the Student Profile make up 22 percent of the student body, have been frequent targets. According to Diversity Commissioner Justice Tention, Asian students are often labeled and judged for their intelligence levels. “I think it’s really unfair because you definitely have people who fit that category because they are extremely intelligent, but I don’t think it’s because they are Asian,” Tention said. “I think it kind of discredits their hard work.”
However, according to Dean of Students James Lubbe, the usage of racist and derogatory terms does not usually occur on school gampus. “Racial terms come to mind, but it doesn’t happen often,” Lubbe said. “I’ve never noticed that one race is picked on more than another race.”
Although many students find Gunn to be a comfortable environment, others such as Christians, feel the contrary. “Gunn says it’s accepting and open, especially during Not In Our Schools week with the LGBTQ community, but in reality, I feel like a lot of the things that go around the school about acceptance doesn’t really apply to accepting Christianity,” Christian Club co-President senior Anita Chan said.
According to Christian Club co-President senior Grace Lee, Christian students think most Gunn teachers respect their religion, but they find that some extremely liberal teachers say unpleasant and insulting things. “Some teachers go out of their way to contradict Biblical verses,” she said. “They make it seem as if all Christians are gay haters when that isn’t necessarily true. Instead of respecting our beliefs, they say that those students are just flat out wrong and should be taught to know the correct truth.” According to Lee, one girl a few years walked out zof a classroom very upset because she spoke out against her teacher’s gibes against Christianity and became involved in a heated fight.
In addition, some Christian students feel left out from their fellow peers. “Sometimes, students joke insensitively about Christianity, or they think that we wouldn’t enjoy doing something because we’re Christian and that we will judge others,” Chan said. “Also, some people feel that the Westboro Church is what Christianity is, which is completely false.”
President of the Jewish Student Union (JSU) Mark Gorelik recalls one incident of hate crime directed against a Jewish student on school campus, in which the hood of the student’s car was keyed with a profane, anti-semitic remark.
Of the very few cases of bullying Gunn has seen, cyberbullying is the most prevalent. Head of Technology Ronen Habib conducted a survey about cyberbullying this year. Although the results of the survey are still undergoing
analysis, according to Habib, the preliminary look is better than expected.
However, Gunn still faces some cyberbullying and has seen situations of this intolerance in varying degrees. According to Habib, common forms of cyberbullying that the school is aware of include embarrassing and damning pictures of people on Facebook, “slut-shaming” and a hurtful wall post or status about a certain individual that garners multiple inappropriate comments.
A few years ago, an especially serious case of cyberbullying rocked the district when a Gunn student created a fake Facebook profile of a girl, contacted a basketball player at Palo Alto High School (Paly) via Facebook, flirted with him and continued to lead him on. During the Gunn-Paly basketball game, a member of the Sixth Man Club told the student that the girl was not real. “This case was a lot more premeditated and malicious,” Habib said. “We’ve seen the psychological effects and trauma that happens from cyberbullying, and it stays online.”
What Gunn has done
Not in Our Schools (NIOS) Week co-facilitator Todd Summers finds Gunn’s implementation of NIOS Week an effective measure towards combating community intolerance.
“I think it’s been really good,” Summers said. “Over the past ten years, I’ve definitely seen improvement in how students are able to be themselves.”
While NIOS Week earned widespread acclaim from members of the community, some believe it can be improved to raise a greater level of awareness for minority groups. The Day of Silence stands as one aspect of NIOS that some believe can be improved.
“I have had people who shared that at the Day of Silence, people don’t take it as seriously as they should, and that if somebody’s participating, their friends took that as an opportunity to then try to get them to speak,” GSA advisor Daisy Renazco said. “They felt like it was more of a game.”
In addition to NIOS Week, student groups like Reach Out Care and Know (ROCK) aid in bringing together diverse groups of students into an integrated network.
“The main goal of ROCK is to decrease boundaries that naturally form among groups of students and to increase the feeling of connectivity across groups,” ROCK advisor Paul Dunlap said. “I think it is good to tighten the network under students so that nobody is lost and that everyone is connected.”
Gunn’s diversity extends to religious groups, including several SEC-sanctioned clubs. Gorelik finds Gunn to be a highly open and accepting school. Using his own club as an example, he stated that religiously-based clubs even make an effort to incorporate members who do not practice the associated religion.
“It’s not a solely Jewish club,” Gorelik said in a telephone interview. “I think we’ve even had half of the people who’ve come not be Jewish and just be there to hang out with friends and learn more about Jewish culture.”
Summers points to the picketing by the Westboro Baptist Church, a religious denomination widely defined as a hate group, at Gunn in early 2010 as an event that demonstrated Gunn’s high level of acceptance. In response to the picketing, Gunn students and staff members launched a counter-protest.
“The counter-protest to me solidified the fact that the work that we were doing was seeping out into our culture because of the huge positive response that we got,” he said. “Ten years before that, pre-Not in Our Schools Week, that definitely would not have happened.”
Gunn’s success in promoting an accepting academic environment is reflected in results from the most recently administered California Healthy Kids Survey, which found that a large percentage of students have never been harassed on school property in the last twelve months on basis of diversity in the 2011-2012 school year.
Additional courses of action
Habib believes that Gunn should incorporate the Facing History in Ourselves program, an international educational program that assists in delivering curriculum to teachers, to solve cyberbullying, whether through offering an entire class or just focusing on it in a few class periods.
“This is a course that really gets students to get in touch with what’s going on with them emotionally,” Habib said. “It produces personal empowerment for them, so that they won’t bully others.”
The administration currently plans to have a student-only focus group on cyberbullying in April that will be run by a professional facilitator.
Members of student minority groups find some popular school events to be limited in terms of raising awareness with regards to diversity. One such event that received criticism for its subtle enforcement of gender stereotypes is the Sadie Hawkins Dance, for which a female student traditionally invites a male student.
“I think that reversing the traditional gender roles on some level and having the girl ask and whatnot is really cool” Schroeder said. “But also, that reinforces the gender roles. It’s not so good to have the roles enforced by having to reverse them.”
Renazco shares Schroeder’s opinion and finds the dance exclusive to LGBTQ students.
“Just in the dance itself, you have the idea that heterosexual couples is the norm simply from the way it’s promoted,” Renazco said. Renazco believes that an effort to discontinue the Sadie Hawkins tradition serves as a conversation worth opening.
To address any bullying or intolerance, Lubbe supports more discussion and expansion of current programs, such as ROCK and Camp Everytown.
“I think that without having the discussions about intolerance or racial inequality, we cannot make any progress,” Lubbe said. “What makes Gunn so special is that we do a lot of work on this.” Lubbe also applauds certain teachers that have discussions in the classroom about racial inequality that help students understand to accept people’s differences.
Gunn has room to improve its culture of acceptance, but members of the school community already find it in a good position. “Students and staff have made a commitment to putting diversity at the center of school culture,” Assistant Principal Trinity Klein said.
While student leaders praise efforts by the administration to promote and accepting school campus, they believe that members of the student body should work to initiate a more positive effort. “I think it really has to start with the students,” Tention said. “At the end of the day, the students are the ones that have to take initiative and change the culture.”