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Message to students -- Bias hurts
RUMFORD -- Brandon Baldwin, Schools and Curriculum Coordinator for the Civil Rights Team Project, in the Maine Attorney General’s Office, delivered a serious message about bias to the students at Mountain Valley High School.
Though his message was serious, his approach was often lighthearted.
“I want you to understand bias and know it happens at MVHS,” he started.
“I’ll begin with a video clip from one of Dr. Seuss’s stories. No one is too old or too good for Dr. Seuss. I use it with college students and adults. He was writing for kids but also for adults who were reading to their kids.”
The story of Sneetches, found at youtube.com/watch?v=v3yJomUhs0g, is about two kinds of sneetches. One group has a star on their bellies. Another group has no star. The star-bellied sneetches have all the power and are very exclusive. They engage in taunting, name-calling and eventually violence against the plain-bellied sneetches. By the end of the brief clip, the plain-bellied sneetches are demoralized and wish they could be something different.
Baldwin then described, “The reason for these behaviors is bias. Bias is prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person or group. A barebones definition is bias equals prejudice. Bias is damaging. It hurts. The sneetches were moping on the beaches, wishing they could be something different. They were ashamed of who they were.”
“Bias is hard to detect because it is in the heart and brain,” Baldwin continued. “But we can study behavior. The Sneetches story is a little funny but unfortunately, all of this is true in real life.”
Next Baldwin outlined three cases of bias in Maine. One involved a student of Mexican-American ancestry in Hodgdon who suffered escalating name-calling. Eventually the student was beaten and ended up in the hospital.
Another case took place in Winthrop. A student of Jewish faith woke up one morning to see street signs painted with swastikas.
Finally in Saco, a high school student who is gay was targeted with offensive language. One day another student held a knife to his throat and threatened to “end his suffering.”
In all cases, the Maine Attorney General’s office obtained injunctions for violations of the Maine Civil Rights Act.
“My office enforces the Maine Civil Rights Act,” Baldwin said. “A violation requires criminal conduct and it must be motivated by bias. Criminal conduct involves violence, threats of violence, property damage, threats of property damage and trespass. Bias can be based on race and color; ancestry and national origin; religion; physical and mental disability; gender; and sexual orientation.”
Baldwin continued, “We have a law that protects us against crimes that President Obama described as ‘crimes that are meant not only to break bones, but to break spirits — not only to inflict harm, but to instill fear.’”
“Bias is very damaging because it tends to escalate from name calling, to threats, then violence. It affects larger communities. It wasn’t just the girl in Winthrop affected by the swastikas; other Jews and those who even knew about the Holocaust were offended. Bias has a bigger picture – every act is connected to other acts of bias in history or in the future. Finally, bias targets someone’s core identity; the things we cannot easily change about ourselves.”
Then Baldwin asked students and staff to participate in a demonstration for bias within the walls of MVHS. He asked them to stand up if they had ever witnessed or were aware of bias or bias behaviors. Then he named each protected group.
“I observed that the category did not matter, a majority of you stood up for all categories,” Baldwin said. “You’ve acknowledged that there is bias in your school.”
He concluded with three actions that students can take. “First, take this seriously – bias hurts. Second, stop bias behaviors – look in the mirror and see what you may do without stopping to think about it. Finally, use your voice to stand up to bias behavior.”