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Friday, March 27, 2015
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Students address diversity within the walls of BVHS
By By Jill Meier
Challenger editor

March 26. 2014 10:31AM
No two people are alike.

Which is OK.

We all have a story to tell.

And that’s OK, too.

Those were two of the many messages delivered to the 1,000-plus student body at Brandon Valley High School Friday morning during an assembly addressing diversity within the walls of BVHS.

The students heard stories from kids they see everyday in the hallways at school. They heard from a girl who proudly wears a “he dad,” a scarf, which covers her hair and frames her face. Although born an American, she wears it to honor her mother’s Moroccan heritage.

They learned what it means to have a best friend with special needs, and what it’s like being a big brother to a sibling with Down’s syndrome. They heard stories of the hardships and setbacks some of their teacher’s have faced in their lifetimes. And they heard inspiring words from the school’s Special Olympics athletes in a video presentation that brings awareness to the “Spread the Word to End the Word” campaign, which is a quest to eliminate the word “retarded” from our vocabulary when stated in a negative way.

“The whole idea was just to take a look a each other’s stories, and there’s great stories to tell,” said BVHS Principal Gregg Talcott. “This week has been built around storytelling, and if you learn each other’s stories, we’re more likely to treat each other well. While none of us believes that one day, one assembly is going to turn everything around, every little piece does help.”

Talcott said the hour-long assembly was organized by high school guidance counselors Michelle Stemwedel and Amy Lupkes, and assistant principal Mark Schlekeway. The trio agreed that, for the most part, BVHS students have respect for the diversity among their peers.

“Our kids truly care about each other,” Stemwedel said. “They just slip up sometimes, just like adults.”

The stories told

BVHS junior Umaima Koch stood before her peers Friday donning a black and white he dab. The scarf, she tells the students, helps her to identify with her parent’s backgrounds: Her father is an American; her mother is of Moroccan descent.
“But I consider myself an American, just like you,” she said, “and I never had any problems about who I am until high school.”

Koch said she made the grown up decision to wear the scarves in the summer leading up to eighth grade at the age of 13. “It’s not just an article of clothing,” she said. “It represents a way of life and represents modesty.”

She said her mother advised to wait a few years, but Koch said, “I wanted it so much, to make the deep commitment. After that, there was no going back. I’m happy with who I am, what I stand for.”

And so were her peers in middle school. It was when she stepped into the high school that Koch first learned that teens, kids she sat next to in math and English classes, were calling her a “terrorist.”

“I wasn’t mad,” she said. “I was just confused. I couldn’t comprehend why.”

Koch said there are times – “mostly when I‘m sitting at home” – that she doesn’t feel as though she fits in.

“My religion is so much as part of my life and my lifestyle,” she told her peers. “I identify myself as an American, and I feel American for the most part. But at the end of the day, there’s always this barrier. … People are just afraid to cross and I’m stuck here in the middle, and it’s not really a good middle at all.”

Koch said she hopes one day that her peers – and the public – will look past all the stereotypes to break down that barrier.

“Because no one wants to be alone,” she said.

Sophomore Connor Rowbotham shared what it’s like to be a big brother to Carson, 13, who has Down’s syndrome. Rowbotham thanked his peers for making commitment to one of the topic’s of the day, erasing the “R” word from our vocabulary.
“It’s great to know that Carson will be treated well here,” he said of his brother, who’s currently in the eighth grade. “I hope we, as BVHS students, can spread the word to end the word.”

Best friends since the second grade, Kathryn Ode said she looked past her friend Emily Gross’ disabilities.

“She’s taught me so much in the last 10 years of life,” Ode said.

Gross, who’s part of BV’s Special Olympics program, enticed Ode to be a volunteer for the program.

“The Special Olympics team and Emily have helped me decide my plans for the future,” Ode said, eluding to a career as a special education teacher.

“Emily has taught me patience,” she said. “To smile. To laugh and to live life.”

She talked about the first time that kids were making fun of her best friend, and how she stood up for her that day.

One of Brandon Valley’s own Special Olympians – Kaylee Peterson – is pictured on this year’s “Spread the Word to End the Word” banner. At lunchtime, BVHS students were given the opportunity to sign their name on the banner, pledging to “spread the word.”

“The word hurts,” Stemwedel told the students. “Disable the label.”

Senior Dominic Nealy said Friday’s program was a good reminder to treat others with respect, no matter their heritage, skin color and the like.

“A lot of kids have a lot of stories,” he said. “It opened my eyes and it was hard not to be touched (by today’s program).”
Friday’s assembly on diversity can be viewed on the school website,

Brandon Valley High School students sign the "Spread the Word to End the Word" poster that features a photo of one of their own, Kaylee Pederson. By signing the poster, students are pledging to erase the word "retarded" in a negative way from their vocabulary. The plege, a program on diversity and more were all part of the "Be The Change Week" at Brandon Valley High School last week. Photo by Jill Meier

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