Kavya: Education, Exposure Key to School Inclusivity

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I’ve been in the Unit 5 School System for over 11 years, meaning I have gone to school with the same kids since elementary school. We all used to eat lunch and play during recess together; however, that feeling of camaraderie does not exist anymore.

I've experienced, as have many others, the realities of 'bias' as I've matured.

Ideas, people and the environment that surround us shape our innocent minds in both good and bad ways as we grow older. These external sources of influence could be new-found friends, teachers or even a parent's banter.

Influences that give rise to a negative bias often result in students becoming ignorant about and close-minded toward others.

What caught my attention when I first heard about Not In Our School (NIOS) was the use of the world 'inclusive' in the NIOS mission statement - 'building safe and inclusive environments in schools.'

From my vantage point, most of the uninformed attitudes in school are due to the lack of exposure to other cultures and differences.

So as President of NIOS, I focus heavily on making our club an opportunity for students to get to know more about the diversity of our student body.

We have held a Culture and Religion Fair during school and the one stipulation for the NIOS members was to choose a culture/religion you were not very knowledgeable about to become better informed.

As part of our meetings, we hold discussions on current issues to broaden students’ horizons and to hear different viewpoints.

Furthermore, we conduct outreach to Unit 5 elementary schools to start students thinking of inclusion at an early age.

Most of the funds we raise come from selling signs, posters, and pins with the mantra: 'No Matter Where You Are From, We’re Glad You’re Our Neighbor'. Seeing the signs in almost every teacher’s door has positively impacted our school. Students feel welcome especially because we have many immigrants.

I am overwhelmed by the difference we make in our school environment.

At NIOS, we are bipartisan and firmly believe that through open-minded education and cultural exposure, our school environment will become even more inclusive.

The importance of a school with culturally aware students is a supportive school environment where students are free to unlock their full potential.

On a personal note; NIOS has helped strengthen my leadership and speaking skills. I have gained so many new speaking opportunities which hone my abilities every time I have the chance to speak.

I've also learned that organizing events is tougher than it appears as is applying the art of compromise when dealing with students and adults who share differing perspectives.

If you want to get out of your comfort zone and truly grow, I highly recommend Not In Our School.

It has changed my outlook on the world.

Kavya Sudhir, Veteran Scholar
McLean County Diversity Project

Immigrant Alliance Training Plants New Seeds of Security

It's a challenging time for foreign-born students, amid politicized scrutiny of immigration and refugee issues and a flare-up in verbal and even physical attacks on students even by isolated teachers across the U.S..

NIOTBN thus met recently with Unit 5/District 87/University High students and staffers in a first-time immigrant alliance training session. Thirty U High, Bloomington Junior High and High School, and Normal Community and Community West representatives participated in what may develop into a communitywide "train the trainer" effort.

"There's a lot of work to be done," NIOTBN Education Subcommittee Co-Chair Mary Aplington maintained.

Helping lead the three-hour program was David Hirst, a member of The Immigration Project board and former head of Normal West's World Language Department.

Protecting immigrant students from individuals within the school is not the only challenge for families. The controversy over federal immigration officials ramping up arrests and deportations -- even venturing into schools -- spurred District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly to stress that while the district is required to cooperate with immigration officials, schools “would not let an agent meet with any student without the consent of a parent,” assuming an agent has no criminal warrant.

He said “in the end, FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) protections apply to all students.”

“Unit 5 has policies regarding interviews by outside law enforcement officers,” said Curt Richardson, that district's attorney. According to administrative procedures in the Normal-based district, interviews of minor students by outside law enforcement officers without permission of the parents is not permitted at school unless a legal process is presented.

Immigration arrests in cities such as Memphis, Tenn., have led to growing fears some families may keep their children home from school.

NIOTBN, Schools To Address Transgender Issues

As the White House draws fire for President Trump’s controversial proposals to ban transgender individuals from the military and disallow strategic civil rights protections for transgender Americans, NIOTBN and local schools hope to help to make the classroom a safer and more welcoming place for all students.

NIOTBN’s Education Subcommittee and Normal Unit 5 school officials and students plan to meet next week for a panel discussion on transgender challenges, from school restroom designations and use to questions about Skyward, a software system specializing in K-12 school management. Subcommittee Co-Chair Camille Taylor notes individuals are entered through birth certificates, meaning student records may not reflect current individual gender identity.

That can cause discomfort and confusion for transgender students in the classroom and other school venues, said Taylor, a retired local educator. Among other issues, NIOTBN hopes to address possible ways to reconcile “permanent records” with student identifications in its meeting with Unit 5 administrators, Normal Community and Community West High School principals, and student representatives.

Education Co-Chair Mary Aplington stressed the need for “policies across districts that are very similar,” noting Bloomington District 87’s existing strides in enhancing student inclusivity.

“We need collaboration at the top level,” Aplington added.

This spring, NIOTBN shared LGBTQ advocacy materials supplied by the national Not In Our Town organization with local school with community Not In Our School (NIOS) students and faculty “point people.”

More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws protecting students from discrimination based on their gender identity. In an effort to encourage their protection, an April 2014 letter from the Federal Office of Civil Rights clarified that discrimination against transgender students in schools is covered by Title IX and educators in schools across the United States are accountable for ensuring the safety and inclusion of transgender students in all school-sponsored activities.

Meanwhile, at the elementary level, several Unit 5 schools reportedly are eyeing the launch of anti-bullying/anti-bigotry NIOS programs in 2017-18. NIOTBN plans to participate in an Aug. 8 Back 2 School Party for Unit 5 and District 87 students at Bloomington’s Grossinger Motors Arena. The event, from noon to 4:30 p.m., will feature free school backpack supply kits and information from various community groups.   

Families must complete school registration and provide all health requirements for their children to attend the party.

'Run, Hide, Fight': Active Shooter Protocols Addressed

Lenore Sobota

The Pantagraph

Ideas are changing about the best strategy for reacting when an active shooter is in a school building, and faculty and staff at Illinois State University's lab schools recently had opportunities to practice the “run, hide, fight” approach.

The drill included barricading doors, throwing objects and even swarming a “shooter” — portrayed by an ISU police officer armed with a super-soaker water gun.

ISU Police Chief Aaron Woodruff said the standard practice has been to lock the door, turn out the lights and hunker down.

“A lot of times, that may not be the best option,” Woodruff said. “We're teaching teachers to look at options.”

Ryan Weichman, assistant principal at Metcalf Laboratory School, said the lockdown strategy was developed more to deal with outside threats coming into the school, but often the threat comes from within.

“We've been trained to continue to be passive,” said Weichman, but that approach and related strategies started to be rethought after the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999.

Weichman went through a training program called ALICE — Alert. Lockdown. Inform. Counter. Evacuate — at Heartland Community College last year.

“It was really eye-opening,” he said.

Metcalf hosted another two-day training session this summer. Then Weichman, Woodruff, University High School Assistant Principal Steve Evans and Eric Hodges, ISU's emergency manager, compared notes and adapted the training to local needs.

They adopted the “run, hide, fight” catchphrase because it's easy to remember in the heat of the moment, much like youngsters are taught to “stop, drop, roll” if their clothing catches fire, Evans explained.

The recent training sessions at Metcalf and U High included faculty and staff, including office staff and building services workers, as well as frequent substitute teachers.

It's easy in many areas to think “it can't happen here,” but Twin City educators remember when a Normal Community High School student brought a loaded gun to school in 2012, firing several shots into the ceiling before he was subdued and disarmed by a teacher and other students.

Woodruff uses the NCHS incident as a frame of reference in training.

At least one person, near an exit, ran out of the building when he heard the shots, Woodruff said. Most, not certain what was happening, locked themselves in their rooms.

The teacher in the classroom where it happened didn't have the option to run or hide, so he fought, said Woodruff, adding each did the right thing for their situation.

During the recent training at Metcalf and U High, the idea of having drills in which barricades were built, for example, was to build muscle memory and show people what they can do, Woodruff said.

Using desks, tables, filing cabinets and even belts, they had doors barricaded in minutes, he said.

Much like a flight attendant advises you before takeoff to note the nearest exit, Woodruff and the other trainers told teachers to note where the nearest doors and windows are.

Among questions participants were asked to consider were: Can you get out the window, if necessary? Can you jump? Are students in the room old enough to help or follow directions to get out quickly, or is it better to keep them in place?

Evans said, “The next step is getting our students prepared for a situation.” Such training would have to be age-appropriate, Weichman said, acknowledging, “It's a sensitive topic.”

The schools also are upgrading the ability to communicate in every room, so people know what's happening and where the shooter is located, Evans said.

Woodruff also talks about prevention and “communicating concerns or threats to the appropriate authorities so we can intervene before there is a major incident,” he said.

Evans agreed that “the No. 1 piece for us … is prevention.”