I talk a lot about school climate and bullying prevention when working with schools to improve their levels of safety. Even though surveys reveal that a large number of students perceive bullying and harassment as major problems in their schools, we know that students of all ages are quite capable of taking action and making strides toward acceptance and inclusion.
If you have not already heard or read about the students at Lincoln Middle School in Kenosha, WI, I urge you to take a few minutes to read this amazing story. The following story originally appeared in the March 23 edition of the DPI ConnectED newsletter. Thanks to Wisconsin State Superintendent of Education Tony Evers for bringing it to our attention. Read on…
A Kenosha middle school’s empathy program may have played a role in the story of some compassionate basketball players who defended a classmate.
The Lincoln Middle School boys basketball team recently earned international media attention for supporting classmate Desiree Andrews, a cheerleader who has Down syndrome.
“She’s always been just this girl full of energy, who dances to beat of her own drum. She’s been an amazing girl to have part of our learning environment, our community,” the school’s principal, Star Daley, says.
After hearing people in the stands make fun of Andrews during a basketball game, the team decided during a time out that something had to be done.
Three team members, Miles Rodriguez, Scooter Terrien, and Chase Vazquez, became ad-hoc “spokespersons” for the team, Daley says, when they walked over to the offending students.
“We were like, ‘Can you guys just stop? That’s not right,’” Rodriguez recounted to WTMJ News.
This school year, being the last in the school for Andrews and many on the team, the boys asked for something more. Daley and Athletic Director Timothy Nieman agreed to rename the gymnasium, “D’s House” in Andrews’ honor. When “D’s House” was dedicated last month, Daley suggested sending out a news release in hopes of local coverage.
In fact, not only did the Kenosha News report on the story, but it went viral and was soon picked up by media such as USA Today, the blogs of The Washington Post and National Public Radio, BuzzFeed, and the UK’s Daily Mail.
“It’s been a great experience,” Daley told DPI-ConnectEd. “Everyone has just been so overwhelmed and filled with pride.”
DPI-ConnectEd asked if there might be any connection between what the students had been learning in school and their choice to stand up for a classmate.
Daley revealed that 2013-14, the year of the initial events at the basketball court, was the year the school started a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program focused on empathy. “The focus was about bullying and, you know, it takes all of us.”
Every morning, for an entire semester leading up to the now-famous game, each student in the school had taken a “knight’s oath” (building on the Lincoln Knights mascot): “‘We vow to act responsibly, to be caring’ … Our push was we wanted them to care, to have empathy, we wanted them to support one another and we pushed that a lot last year.”
The story reminds one of how hard it is to measure many important impacts of education.
“I don’t know if [the PBIS program] was any kind of impetus” for their admirable behavior, Daley says. But she adds, laughing, “I would like to think it was at least some part of it.”
Readers, viewers, and listeners the world over have responded to the positive character exhibited by the Lincoln students. Their actions are proof of one of the talking points of Middle Level Education Month — that students in the middle grades are capable of tremendous compassion and leadership.
Their educators’ role in helping them tap that potential is more elusive, but just as important.
As for Andrews, she told WTMJ News that having the gym named after her was “sweet, kind, awesome, amazing.” Her father, Cliff Andrews, told the Kenosha News he was more upset than she was the night the teasing happened: “She threw her hands around me and made me look at her face and said, ‘Papa, it’s OK. I still love them even if they don’t like me.’”
And she wears her newfound fame quite naturally. “Desiree has always been under the assumption, since she’s had an assistant [at school], that she’s famous,” Andrews told the News. “So now her dream is coming true and she’s just on cloud nine.”
Even with such belief in herself, it seems Andrews would not have thought to try out for the cheerleading squad if it weren’t for a deliberate message of inclusion from the popular media. Cliff told the Kenosha News that Desiree got the idea after seeing a cheerleader with Down syndrome on the comedy-drama television show, Glee.