Nicole Simon, a 10th-grader at the Solomon Schechter High School in Hicksville, was shocked and hurt recently when she boarded the school bus and a seventh-grader called her a "nigger."
"I didn’t know what to do," said the West Hempstead student. "The older kids on the bus had told him that to be cool at high school it was cool to say nigger. I was never called a nigger before. I was appalled."
Name calling in schools is something that "goes on throughout the country and throughout the world," according to the Long Island regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, Phyllis Barell.
Her organization’s educational arm, the World of Difference Institute, has been conducting sensitivity training in schools in Nassau and Suffolk for many years, 40 in 1996 alone.
The situation at the Solomon Schechter came to a head in December, when during an afterschool activity, a group of students became upset with racial and ethnic slurs they heard others using. When they objected, another student questioned why it was wrong to use such language.
That prompted Simon and two fellow students, Haylee Cohen of Plainview and Michal Rubin of Jamaica, Queens, to ask the school administration to have a daylong program on acceptance for the 124 students. The administration responded by inviting Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a New York City-based organization, to lead a daylong workshop on understanding and fighting racism.
"By creating a special day [for one subject], you are highlighting the issue and it is taken more seriously," said principal Bracha Werber. And calling in an outside group of professionals to facilitate the discussions rather than having teachers lecture to the students allowed the teens to be more involved in the learning experience, she added.
The students were divided into six groups. During the course of the discussions and role playing, they talked about stereotypes and the impact of words.
"I don’t think we are immune to what goes on in society at large," said Werber. "My two children went to another school and the language used there was worse than here.
"These words are used without thinking. [The students] have to learn to think of the words they are going to use and the effects they are going to have on people. Once you let the words go, you can’t take them back."
Werber added that she was "not happy it’s going on in a Jewish school, but that is the reality." She added that the school would consider repeating such a program in the next few years.
Barell noted that last year, a girls athletic team from Great Neck went to Garden City and found itself "spat upon and called names because Great Neck was identified as being a ‘Jewish community.’"
"We spoke to the people at the Garden City schools to have them understand how visitors who do not look like us, do not sound like us or go to the same church are to be treated," she said.
As part of the program at Solomon Schechter, the students gathered in the gym after the workshops to discuss what they had learned. Covering one wall were some of the offensive words that were the subject of the forum. Among them: Nazi, fairy, homo, JAP, trash and kike. On another wall were famous quotes dealing with the topic, including: "Keep in mind what is above you," "Love your neighbor as yourself" and "Words break more than bones."
"We need to have more of these kind of programs," said Heather Sand, 14, of Whitestone, Queens. "Many of the students have been going to a Jewish school all of their lives and have not been exposed to different races and religions.
"You go down the hall and hear words like ‘nigger’ and ‘lesbo.’ This program has helped us to realize that that is a horrible way to treat people."
Rubin, a senior, said the program helped students to become aware of their own prejudices and to "judge a person by his character and not use stereotypes."
Cohen, a 10th-grader, said the program was particularly important in her school because "we are a small community and we care about each other. … Words were being used in the halls by people who did not understand the true power of those words."
Barell pointed out that calling someone a name is more than being insensitive and cruel: it is against the law.
"Children are being convicted of bias crimes in Nassau and Suffolk counties," she said. "We are not naive enough to believe everyone will love everyone else. But at least we can change people’s behavior."
Barell said the Solomon Schechter "should be applauded" for dealing head-on with the issue. She said the ADL is encouraging schools to be "proactive rather than reactive so that if multiracial and diversity training is done prior to an incident, [the incident] may never occur."
She added that "children of all ages are volatile and say things sometimes out of anger or because they are totally unaware of how insensitive they are being to other people. Name-calling of any kind, derogatory phrases, jokes or slurs are ways people vent their anger on people with low self-esteem to try to make themselves feel better than somebody else."
Over the next several years, Barell said, the face of Long Island will change as it becomes more diversified. This makes it all the more important that children "understand that diversity is something we celebrate."