Delaware students rally around the word ‘respect’

Fred Fifer Middle school seventh-grader Nina Dula signs a banner during the Spread The Word event on Wednesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Throughout the state of Delaware Wednesday, schools racked up signatures of support and spread the word “respect,” as part of the annual Spread the Word campaign.

During lunch at Smyrna Middle School, a banner was rolled in the front of the cafeteria with a bin of Sharpies and a bundle of stickers that listed off “accept,” “unify” and “respect.”

Students and staff lined up to sign the banner.

“It’s a tough age. The peer pressure is ridiculous,” said Jenn Hall, a teacher who leads a class dedicated to Special Olympics. “It’s time for us to embrace our diversity instead of pointing out all the things that are different.”

For 11 years, as part of the Special Olympics Program, schools throughout the state have participated in the Spread the Word Campaign. The campaign started as a way to discourage the use of the R-word (retarded), but more recently, the focus has shifted to include broader issues of “social respect and inclusion,” officials said.

At Smyrna Middle, Ms. Hall’s class comes together with students in the comprehensive learning program (CLP) class, which rolled out for the first time this year.

The course puts students of all abilities together, Ms. Hall said, and it has social and academic components, while also including Special Olympics unified sports.

“Ideally, there’s a student or two for my class, that buddies with a [CLP] friend. Sometimes we do game days to work on social interactions, following rules,” she said. “Then sometimes we do tutoring. So we’ll do a lesson on time or money or whatever it is that they need in that moment. My students will develop a lesson plan to teach it to our (CLP) friends.”

At lunch on Wednesday, the students came together to encourage their peers to sign the banner during lunch.

“It’s great,” said Angelina Doemling, a seventh-grade student. “It supports everyone.”

Alexis Lloyd-Wheeler, an eighth-grade student, agreed, and added that it’s a fun event.

Deontae Riley and Samaiya Lyles, eighth-grade students in Ms. Hall’s class, said the event helps students get to know each other.

“I’m learning to not judge people by who they are, because you never know what’s going on with them,” Samaiya said.

Fred Fifer Middle School students sign a banner during the Spread The Word event on Wednesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Deontae added that knowing how to communicate with others is important.

“The world is becoming a society of phones and games and people don’t know how to have a hands-on conversation,” he said.

At Fifer Middle School, in the Caesar Rodney School District, students came together with the same mission — to spread inclusion and respect.

Sixth-grader Rachel Woodzell said it is important to spread the word of respect.

“People don’t always treat kids with respect because they think that they’re different so they can treat them differently,” she noted. “But, as I’m here, I’m learning that it’s important to respect [all] kids and treat them equally, like any other student.”

Iyonna Jones, an eighth-grader, said, “We all have different abilities. Some people have different types of learning.”

Special education teachers Belma Lugo and Kristen Johnson said, through doing this, they hoped their students would understand the importance of kindness.

Ms. Lugo noted that a lot of students haven’t been exposed to students of different abilities, and working together helps bridge the gap.

When they target middle-school levels for events like this, Ms. Lugo said that the students become interested in pursuing special education and get involved in Special Olympics, too.

“They discover they have a passion for it,” Ms. Lugo said.

Howard T. Ennis students pause before lunch Wednesday to put their names on the Spread the Word banner, under the supervisory eyes of student volunteers from Sussex Central High School. The Spread the Word objective is promote respect, acceptance, incluuon and unify all in friendship. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

This is also the age where students begin to notice differences, said Kimberly Corbeil, principal of Fifer Middle School.

“What better way than to teach kindness right away?” she said. “Teaching is about teaching content, but teaching is also about being just good people. It’s so refreshing and it can be so tearful when you see such kind things happen.”

At Fifer, the Charlton program has students with learning differences in classes alongside their peers. The school also rolled out Best Buddies recently, Ms. Corbeil said.

“The kids are working for the school. The kids are working for each other. It’s just refreshing,” she said.

Banner signing continued downstate, in Indian River’s Howard T. Ennis School.

As part of the campaign, shirts that advocated for inclusion are sold. At Ennis, 450 shirts were purchased everyone in the school would have one that day.

Special Olympics Delaware produces the shirts at cost. Keri Justice, Special Olympics coordinator at Ennis, said that the shirts were offered to all students and staff in the building, and at other schools.

“We had one student sell 95 shirts this year to friends and family,” she said.

Accompanied by Keri Justice, Special Olympics Coordinator at Howard T. Ennis School, Ennis student Marianna Ortega picks her spot to sign the Spread the Word banner, promoting respect, acceptance and inclusion. At right are volunteers from Sussex Central High School, Megan Smith and Jacob Wisseman. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

“Really, it’s all about maximizing the message, just getting the word out, seeing people out in the community and them asking, ‘Hey, what’s this all about?’” she continued. “Then you can really get into a nice conversation about including, and respect and just welcoming everybody no matter their disability or ability.”

More than 17,000 shirts were sold statewide to students and staff at schools, which is an all-time high, officials said.

Staff wrtier Glenn Rolfe contributed to this story.