CAPE ELIZABETH — The Middle School Civil Rights Team knows just because diversity isn’t always visible, doesn’t mean it’s not an issue.
The team of seventh- and eighth-graders also knows this means they have to work harder to educate their peers on social issues such as race, sexuality, gender and ability.
“Maybe because we’re not as diverse, people feel like they can say things,” eighth-grader Darcy Cochran said recently.
The group of about 15 students meets bi-weekly to discuss issues they feel are important and how they can make other students aware of those issues. They develop projects and work on fostering a more accepting school environment.
“I feel like we’re making people aware that things aren’t OK,” eighth-grader Sean Collins said.
Students on the team said they sometimes hear peers use the word “gay” as an insult, or “sissy” to describe a boy who isn’t athletic. They said they want to educate other students about why that isn’t acceptable and work on creating a school with bias-free language.
“I joined because at our school I thought there were problems and I thought joining could help solve them,” Cochran said. “I thought joining could make our school a better place.”
Other students on the team, which was started last year by guidance counselor Stephanie Bouffard, said they didn’t notice issues at school until they joined.
“Once I joined it opened my eyes to things in my school I didn’t notice before,” eighth-grader Millie Erickson said.
In addition to educating others, members of the club have a safe place to discuss issues they care about.
“Something I like about the civil rights team is that everyone gets a chance to say what they want and everyone’s equal here,” Collins said.
The school’s social worker, Chip Babineau, advises the team with Bouffard and guidance counselor Kim Sturgeon. He said the students use the team as a way to openly talk about what they care about, without fear of being judged.
“They’re really open and it takes a certain amount of courage to talk about social issues,” Babineau said. “These kids are brave.”
Eighth-grader Eva Abbott said the team doesn’t hold back in its discussions.
“We’re open about diversity,” she said. “We don’t try to hide it.”
The team is working on a Martin Luther King Jr. Day project involving trivia games to educate other students about civil rights and civil rights leaders.
The students said they’ve done other projects like this, but it’s been difficult to see the impact. They said they think their efforts will pay off in the long run, though.
“I think if the civil rights team keeps going we’ll make a difference,” Cochran said.
Bouffard said she thinks they will too, adding that the students’ thoughts and ideas have been very advanced.
“I’m really impressed by their thoughtfulness and awareness of issues of justice,” she said.
Bouffard said the school has been working on increasing students’ awareness of different social issues and has been trying to reduce stereotyping. She said it has implemented anti-bias and anti-harassment programs, and has brought in speakers to lead workshops and presentations.
The school has also been teaching students how to be active bystanders, who intervene if they see or hear instances of bias, harassment, or degrading language. Bouffard said teachers and staff have also gone through training.
The civil rights team is part of the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Team Project, which hopes to create teams at schools across the state. This fall, CEMS’ team took part in a training session with other schools, which Bouffard said helped students see the larger impact of their work.
“It’s nice because it’s not just us on our own, we’re part of something bigger,” she said.
Bouffard said she hopes the students take what they discuss with the team and use it to educate others and make a difference in the school, as well as in their lives after middle school.
“I hope the team can get people talking about civil rights issues,” she said. “It’s not their job to be civil rights police, but it is their job to get people talking about issues and I hope this team empowers them to do so.”
The Cape Elizabeth Middle School Civil Rights Team has discussions and leads projects that it hopes will educate students on social issues.