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SOUTHWICK — After a couple meetings of hearing from parents and students upset with racist incidents at Southwick Regional School, the district School Committee on April 8 heard about how educators are teaching kindness and inclusion.

“When students walk in our doors, it is important that they know this is a place where they are accepted, nurtured and belong, and at Powder Mill School, we believe it is the job of every child and every adult in creating that environment,” said Erin Carrier, principal of Powder Mill School, which serves grades 3-6 in the Southwick-Tolland-Granville Regional School District.

To drive the point home, Carrier said she heard at a recent conference that if educators could “suspend kids into good behavior and fail them into working hard, it would have worked already.”

She said the district is committed to using a multi-prong approach of accountability as well as education so that students are changing and growing and being held accountable for their actions.

Carrier said educators reinforce positive behavior with the “ROCKS” program — Responsible, Ownership, Cooperation, Kindness, and Self Control, and PBIS, or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. When students demonstrate positive behaviors, they earn ROCKS or PBIS tickets that can be exchanged at the student store for supplies or snacks.

Teachers also use social-emotional learning programs that challenge students to understand and value people from all backgrounds.

The curriculum teaches students to recognize the importance of being respectful to their fellow students, understanding the difference between their actions and consequences, and recognizing there are many valuable points of views and experiences that may differ from their own, Carrier said.

When students finish that curriculum unit, Carrier said they will know what constitutes harassment and discrimination, expand their thinking to incorporate other students’ perspectives and recognize times they may be disrespectful of other points of view.

Specifically, Carrier said, students are taught that words matter.

Beginning in the third grade, students learn how their words can hurt others by using a fictional character depicted on paper as a life-size green man that is different than they are.

She said students are led to say mean things to the paper man, and each time they do so, a piece of paper is ripped from the character, leaving it “broken and in pain.” Students then say “sorry” to the character to try and repair the rip, but learn that even after apologizing, the character is not the same.

Carrier said after the paper man exercise, one student wrote: “I learned that being mean to people isn’t nice and can hurt them. I also learned that even if someone has a smile on, you may be hurting them on the inside. … I think that the message is that your words matter and no matter how much your say sorry, there’s always still a little bit of them [that] is hurt.”

Another student wrote: “… It really made me think about how people carry the damage of insults their whole lives. … That really showed me that insults and being mean is wrong.”

Carrier said students are also asked what they stand for, in a lesson on values. She said students discuss friendship, honesty, justice, equality, teamwork, creativity. They then “connect how they think and feel with what their actions show the world.”

As a guide for students to understand what they stand for, Carrier said they are given prompts like: I want to talk to everyone in a nice voice; I like to treat everyone fairly; I am an honest person and always tell the truth; I like people regardless of the color of their skin, their religion or their weight; and I am not a bully and I don’t join in bullying.

School staff also offers grade-level presentations on the ROCKS program, lessons on bullying that include definitions, how to report it, how to advocate for themselves, and consequences, and the definitions of harassment.

And she added the staff is “explicit” in discussing the difficult subjects.

“We talk about words you should never say, about how words hurt, about protected classes, we talk about identity and how a person’s identity is a core part of their being and that we have no right to pass judgment or make comments,” she said.

She also talked about “intent versus impact.”

Carrier gave an example of student walking down the hall without paying attention, turning a corner and then accidentally running into another student, knocking the other student down and causing hurt. The walking student did not intend to hurt, but that was the effect, she said.

“Are they any less hurt because you didn’t mean it?” Carrier said a teacher would ask students.

Students, she said, grasped that concept.

“While they might intend to hurt someone, their impact is what they’ll get consequences for … not necessarily their intent,” she said, adding that message is constantly repeated.

Carrier said students who aren’t incorporating these lessons into their behavior, are broken into smaller groups and meet with the school’s adjustment counselor, a behavioral health counselor, special education teachers, to continue to learn self-regulation, self-confidence, friendship skills, conflict resolution, social skills and, if necessary, resort to mediation to resolve conflicts.

If that doesn’t encourage positive behavior, students receive more services, and an individual safety plan, regular check-ins, increased consequences for bad behavior and mediation agreements.

As she finished her presentation, Carrier showed a photo of her and Assistant Principal Emma Rood in front of a bulletin board that students saw every day last year that read: “This is your school. You belong here. You are worth it. You are important. You are valued. You have a voice. You are respected.”

“That is our commitment to our students and continues to be. It is definitely a work in progress, and we feel like we are learning, growing, and changing every single day,” Carrier said.

cclark@thereminder.com | + posts