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Whitewater High confronts racism

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Kayla Bunge
June 5, 2009
— Whitewater High School students now have a heavy burden to bear: They have been charged with showing their community what it means to be accepting of differences.

Diversity consultants Santo Carfora and Bob Baldwin on Thursday held an hour-long discussion with students in response to an incident of racism at the school a few weeks ago.


Racial slurs, naming six black students and threatening death, were found written on a bathroom stall. Students and community members organized a campaign against hate. Police have interviewed dozens of students but have not found the person responsible for the graffiti.


Carfora and Baldwin were invited to give a presentation to help students better address diversity issues at the high school.


The school district did not allow members of the media to attend the program but allowed reporters to speak with the consultants and three students after the program.


Carfora and Baldwin left the students with a challenge, a famous quote from spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”


That means showing others, through words and actions, what it means to be understanding and accepting of differences, they said.


Ashley Orozco, a senior, said the consultants reminded students that it’s their responsibility to set an example for others, especially those who are the source of intolerance.


“We need to reach out to people who are negative,” she said. “We need to make a difference in their lives so they can rise up.”


Carfora and Baldwin previously have worked with the Whitewater School District. They last addressed students, staff and administrators in 2005, after which diversity training fell down the priority list for district spending.


They said because the schools haven’t been confronted with diversity issues for several years, they stopped thinking about it.


Elizabeth McComb, a junior who helped organize the student protest last week, said racism largely goes unnoticed at the high school, where a student body of 650 includes only 12 black students.


“We usually don’t have to think about it,” she said.


But the consultants said it’s in such places where people often have the most trouble dealing with diversity issues.


“There are cultural differences, and if you don’t understand those differences, you can offend, demean and demoralize people—students, staff, administrators, parents, community members—anybody,” Baldwin said.


“Being white means not having to think about it,” he continued. “But we’ve got to get people to think about it, to understand those differences and to understand there’s a value in those differences.”


Timothy Keil, a senior, said the consultants reminded students that they shouldn’t dwell on racism; they should take steps to eliminate it.


“We are human. We make mistakes,” he said. “But it’s what we do after we make those mistakes that matters. We need to get up and show people that’s not who we are. We have to let people know we don’t tolerate that stuff.”


Carfora and Baldwin often have spoken to students in response to concerns among staff about “inappropriate behavior,” such as name-calling. But never before have they responded to a situation this volatile, they said.


“We don’t like to put out fires,” Carfora said. “This is a fire.”


Carfora and Baldwin usually discuss general diversity issues, such as tolerance, acceptance and building healthy relationships. Intense discussion about racism often is put on the back burner, they said.


But the incident a few weeks ago forced the district to confront racism within its walls.


And now the diversity consultants are hopeful the school, the district and the community will take matters into their own hands.


“We put some things out there for them to think about with the understanding we’re going to be back,” Baldwin said.



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