LINWOOD — The school year started for teachers and staff Tuesday at Mainland Regional High School with a focus on fostering a culture and climate that encourages students to be “upstanders,” according to Superintendent and Principal Mark Marrone.
A bias incident that occurred May 16 at Lake Lenape in which several now-former members of the Mainland boys crew team taunted a member of the Absegami High School girls crew team prompted a schoolwide conversation about diversity and tolerance, Marrone said.
“We have to make diversity a point in the conversation. We have to prepare our students for post-secondary success, but we must also encourage our students to be upstanders and not bystanders and be willing to intervene to address incidents of bias, intimidation, harassment and bullying,” said Marrone.
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Unfurled and hanging over the hallway where students will pass multiple times a day is a new school banner. The flag features the Mustang logo over flags from around the globe and reflects the multinational and multiethnic nature of the staff and student body that make up the MRHS family.
Marrone said the president of the Mainland chapter of the NAACP, Olivia Caldwell, reached out to him in the spring on the heels of the bias incident. Caldwell offered to collaborate with Mainland and find a way to start the conversation about prejudice, bias and stereotypes.
“We have to educate our kids about everyday prejudice, bias and stereotypes and then empower them to do something about it,” said the superintendent, adding the NAACP has been a great resource over the summer.
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Ken Nelson, chairman of the education committee of the Mainland chapter of the NAACP, attended the first-day professional development session at MRHS. He called the plan laid out at the high school extraordinary and said, “Not only did Mr. Marrone lay out a plan to improve the culture and climate of the high school but also outlined the situations which necessitated the modifications.”
The mantra at Mainland for a decade has been “One family, one school, one community,” but Marrone said he reminded his staff on their first day back that “one voice” fits the school as well because one voice is all that is necessary to speak up.
Helping foster tolerance in the district this year will be a social studies Amistad curriculum. In language arts, books such as “The Kite Runner,” a 2003 novel by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini, will be suggested reading, according to the superintendent.
New to the lineup of co-curricular groups this fall will be the Upstanders Advisory Group, according to Marrone. The group will include 12-16 students, chosen for their interest along with teacher recommendation. The group will meet during the unit lunch and once a month with administration to discuss incidents of bias, prejudice, harassment and intimidation, and will help develop programs to combat and reduce these incidents.
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The high school culture and climate committee that includes teachers and coaches brought in a guest speaker on their first day back to talk to all educators in the district about bullying.
Motivational speaker Coach Randy Newman talked about the culture of bullying that exists in all social groups, in the classroom, the halls and on the athletic fields. He spoke with teachers and staff and then met with coaches and sports team captains.
Marrone said he felt like it was a good first step and the effort to address bias and prejudice head on at Mainland was well received.
Nelson, a veteran educator in the Buena Regional School District, said he feels Marrone is committed to moving “Mainland forward, beyond the three R’s of reading, writing and ‘rithmatic to the new three R’s of respect, right choices and taking responsibility for what they say and how they behave.”
Nelson said the NAACP is committed to supporting the efforts begun at Mainland and he hopes the school’s initiative becomes a model for all schools in the region.