Words Matter

By now, everyone has had a chance to read Ms. Randall’s October 8 letter on the rise of hate speech incidents at Cooper. It’s disheartening to know that a letter like this is needed in our diverse and well-educated community. And it’s heartbreaking that our children might think that speaking to each other using racial slurs is acceptable or even cool, or that they might reject the notion that these words carry barbs.

For those of you who might not remember what the letter said or haven’t seen it, we’ve reprinted it below:

October 8, 2019

Dear Cooper Families,

The start of a new school year presents various opportunities for learning. Cooper Middle School’s mission is to support the growth of all students to think critically and function as empathetic, respectful, and responsible global citizens. We strive to prepare our students with resilience as well as the courage to make tough decisions, the knowledge to know what is right, and the integrity needed to make good choices. By partnering with parents and the community, we can succeed in that mission.

We have many opportunities at Cooper for students to get involved in their school and community; opportunities that inspire pride, leadership, and absolute enjoyment in just about any interest area our students have.  Encourage your students to participate in one of our activities, clubs, or to start a new one around their interests.

As a community we must ensure, collectively, that all Cooper Middle School students and staff feel safe and supported. Together, we work to create a positive school culture where respect is shown to all students and staff regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnic group, disability status, or gender. This Fall, however, I want to share with you that I have received some reports regarding extremely derogatory racial slurs directed towards some of our students. These comments have been extremely hurtful to those individuals and families involved. I’m sharing this with you because I need your help to address this issue now.

I want to encourage our students and families to work together, as a school community, to address this challenge. If a student hears anything offensive and/or derogatory, report it to a teacher, administrator, counselor, or another staff member.  Please review our Student Responsibilities and Rights as a reminder that interventions and sanctions for violations can be imposed. Parents are also encouraged to have conversations with their children about how to engage with their fellow students in productive and authentic ways. Parents who have concerns are welcome to contact our school administrators or counselors to discuss them. 

All our staff at Cooper Middle, including our wonderful volunteers, are listening. We are listening for mutual respect, civility, and tolerance. We are optimistic that we can- and will- address this negativity in our school.

Additionally, we are including a class lesson “Words Matter” throughout the month. This program emphasizes the importance of what we say and how we say it. Our counseling staff are working collaboratively with our Region I Equity Specialist and have developed mini lessons. Our social studies classes will have lessons on tolerance. Assistant principals will continue to have quarterly meetings with students to focus on positive character qualities. Additional plans include staff cultural proficiency training and PTO collaboration regarding freedom of speech versus the use of our words or phrases that are intended to intimidate, injure or humiliate others. All parents will be encouraged to attend.

We appreciate your support. When we work together as a school community, we can address challenges and come together to help our students grow and develop into positive and productive citizens.

Respectfully,

Arlene Randall

Principal

As a community- in our homes, schools, churches, synagogues, sports teams, theater groups, bands, choruses, orchestras, chess clubs, Science Olympiads – and so on – we have strived to create a tolerant, diverse environment.

So, mostly here in McLean and Great Falls, it’s not a lack of tolerance that creates the need for a letter like the one Ms. Randall sent. It’s a lack of understanding of the power of our words. Our children, who are learning to navigate their social impact and presences, are taking cues from everything they hear: movies, music, social media, video games, even the daily news, where racial slurs are normalized. These words are so woven into the lexicon of slang and humor, it’s no wonder our kids can’t see the harm in mimicking what they hear.

We must help them parse these influences, show them that regardless of benign intent, racially charged words are anything but benign. Their effect is pain and marginalization, whether the recipient of the words shows it outwardly or not. (And many worry that a reaction of any kind other than laughter won’t be “cool,” so they hide discomfort or outright hurt.)

This is why the PTO is joining with Ms. Randall and her leadership team to support her classroom programming on this subject. We plan to provide what we hope will be a meaningful educational opportunity for both students and parents by working with the Anti-Defamation League to host an assembly on this topic. The assembly will feature a diverse group of certified presenters and will be designed specifically for middle-grade students. We will also host a parent component which will be the subject of our General Membership Meeting. Our current timeline for these events is early February.

Interestingly, we’re not alone in our push for creating more awareness of our words. McLean High School is teaching a class this year on combating intolerance.

Got ideas? Feedback? Please feel free to leave them in the comments or email us at questions@cooperpto.org or president@cooperpto.org