Like many parents and Wantagh residents, I have been hearing a lot about the “No Place for Hate” program that our middle school participates in. As a teacher, I know that districts must implement anti-bullying programs to help mitigate the amount of bullying that occurs among students. I was curious as to why people would be against such a program and set out to educate myself.
What is Social Emotional Learning?
Social Emotional Learning, in simplest terms, is a curriculum designed to promote positive relationships among students. It aims to increase self esteem, decrease bullying, give students strategies for handling their ever changing emotions, and to teach empathy and respect. Districts throughout New York State have implemented programs to achieve these goals, which are aligned with the NYS Dignity For All Students Act (DASA). According to NYSED.gov, DASA “seeks to provide the State’s public elementary and secondary school students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying on school property, a school bus and/or at a school function.” According to the NYS Attorney General’s press release dated August 31, 2016, “The Dignity Act, which became law in 2010, requires school districts to (i) modify their Codes of Conduct to include prohibitions on harassment, bullying, and discrimination, and disseminate the updated code to students and their parents, (ii) train school employees on topics of bullying, harassment, and discrimination, (iii) designate Dignity Act Coordinators for each district school, and (iv) provide students with instruction intended to discourage harassment, bullying, and discrimination.” In other words, all districts are mandated to provide Social Emotional Learning (SEL ) instruction.
An elementary school counselor from a neighboring school district informed me that the value of SEL can not be underestimated. Students are feeling more and more comfortable with who they are, and are willing to express their feelings. This could mean anything from admitting they are struggling academically and receiving mandated services, sharing difficulties they are experiencing in school and at home, and reporting instances of bullying. “The sooner everyone around these students is accepting of who they are, regardless of what that means, the sooner each child will excel in every possible way,” she told me.
There are many different programs available that are used in neighboring districts. Bellmore Elementary uses the “Second Step Program. Seaford uses RULER (Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, Regulating), a program out of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Wantagh Middle School uses “No Place for Hate.”
What is the “No Place for Hate” Program?
No Place for Hate is a SEL program from the Anti-Defamation League. Its mission is to “engage students and staff in dialogue and active learning on the topics of bias, bullying, inclusion and allyship that matter most to your community.” There are materials that are student driven. According to our district’s website, this was the third year that Wantagh Middle School has hosted a NPFH day, which took place on February 17th. The goal is to promote inclusion of all students. Mr. Ciuffo is quoted as saying, “The goal is for all students to walk through these halls and feel included and part of our family. We strive to create an environment where students feel accepted.” Students engage in activities throughout the day including writing positive mission statements, watching videos, using reading materials, creating artwork, and participating in discussions. The ADL has recognized our school as an official “No Place For Hate.”
Many parents were concerned about the “pledge” that students were asked to sign as part of this day. I spoke to several middle schoolers who confirmed they were asked, but not forced to sign this pledge. The exact wording of the pledge is as follows:
- I promise to do my best to treat everyone fairly.
- I promise to do my best to be kind to everyone – even if they are not like me.
- If I see someone being hurt or bullied, I will tell a teacher.
- Everyone should be able to feel safe and happy at school.
- I want our school to be No Place for Hate.
Why the Backlash?
It seems that some parents take issue with the pledge that students sign, but I was curious if there could be more to it. The pledge seems completely benign and having students agree to be upstanders in their school community is never a bad thing in my mind.
The root cause seems to stem from problems people have with the Anti Defamation League. In researching, I found a few articles that take issue with the ADL’s current CEO Jonathan Greenblatt. Greenblatt has been criticized for being too partisan. He has tweeted support for the Black Lives Matter movement and has been critical in the past of the former president, specifically when his words and actions seemed to excuse the behavior of Alt-Right groups. He has called for Tucker Carlson to resign and had called for the former president to be removed from office.
To understand why the ADL takes such strong positions, all one needs to do is to read the ADL’s mission statement that is found on their website, “ADL is a leading anti-hate organization that was founded in 1913 in response to an escalating climate of antisemitism and bigotry. Today, ADL is the first call when acts of antisemitism occur and continues to fight all forms of hate. A global leader in exposing extremism, delivering anti-bias education and fighting hate online, ADL’s ultimate goal is a world in which no group or individual suffers from bias, discrimination or hate.”
The ADL is an organization that supports “liberal” causes. But the No Place For Hate curriculum does not. Its one sole purpose is to address the social emotional needs of students by promoting kindness and acceptance and limiting bullying. The ADL’s political leanings are irrelevant because none of that material is covered – at all.
Furthermore, the program is free. Wantagh does not pay to use this program, nor does it receive any money for using it. The ADL does not profit in any way when No Place For Hate is taught. Contrary to what some parents have thought, there is no reporting to the ADL on any bullying issues that occur in Wantagh. That option is available for districts who may have less resources to deal with bullying and hate, but Wantagh is not such a district. The district also has complete autonomy over the content of the lessons and activities. It can pick and choose the content that best meets the needs of Wantagh Students.
The No Place For Hate curriculum is one of several options available to districts that need to teach social emotional learning by law. It is no better or worse than the other options that are currently available to school districts. By participating in the program the district earns an official recognition that can be proudly displayed .
We know that the district is mandated to have an SEL program in place. Ousting one program, and opposing others would put the children in our district at risk for increased bullying behaviors. The effects of not teaching tolerance, acceptance, empathy and kindness is a risk I wouldn’t be willing to take. While I believe that learning those core values should also happen at home, it is the school district’s obligation by law to continue those lessons at school and to create a safe learning environment where every child can thrive.
So what now? As a mother and a teacher I know full well that the past two years have impacted students’ mental health, and it is more important now than ever to have resources available to them. Bullying is beginning earlier and earlier, with students being targeted not only face to face, but also through texts and emails and on social media. Having a strong SEL program in a school helps reduce bullying and increases the likelihood that if bullying does occur, students will know what to do. My daughter has unfortunately had to deal with being bullied, and she is in 5th grade. She knew immediately the adults she could reach out to, and the school had procedures in place to intervene and resolve the situation before it could escalate. That’s their job – to provide dignity for all students and to help students navigate these types of situations.
If you support Social Emotional Learning initiatives, are in favor of anti bullying programs and wish to see them continue, the time to speak up is now. There are excellent resources available online at www.casel.org We as parents, who wish to see our schools be a safe haven for all students, must not be afraid to fight for such programs to exist, and to advocate for all children in our district.