Civil Rights’ Advocate speaks at Lisbon High School

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On December 7, 2006, Lisbon High School was proud to have the honor of listening to speaker Thom Harnett at its second Academic Aspirations assembly of the 2006-2007 school year. Thom Harnett is currently the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Education and Enforcement in the office of the Attorney General. Students listened intently as Mr. Harnett described his work, his past and the present, about civil rights and what they mean, and about the failure that he sometimes feels. He says that “with every successful enforcement action, every time someone is punished for his or her wrong doings, a failure is represented, because someone somewhere was hurt and nothing can change that.”

Mr. Harnett shared the civil rights movement started long ago. It surfaced with the actions of those such as Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, all three who Mr. Harnett considers heroes. All three, he points out,” were murdered for standing up for what they knew was right. Civil rights are the rights granted to each individual, regardless of your skin color, your race, your gender, your religion, your ancestral background, your physical and mental disabilities, or your sexual orientation.”

After graduating law school in 1980, Mr. Harnett wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. But soon, he got involved with and wound up working for the Migrant Farm Workers in the Hudson Valley of New York. It wasn’t until he saw young children and whole families, all working, all living in unsatisfactory and dangerous conditions, all being treated poorly, all in fear of being deported, that he knew he wanted to work with the civil rights movement for a living. The problem was, he said, “the way these workers were treated was legal, and at times it’s the law that’s unjust and needs to be changed.”

Mr. Harnett came to us with so many stories of civil rights violations, so many recent stories, in or near town, all happening right in front of our eyes everyday. He told us stories of children in fear of riding the school bus to school, in fear of attending their classes, all because their skin wasn’t the preferred color, or because they didn’t practice the preferred religion. “School is supposed to be a place to learn, a place to grow. It is not supposed to be a place where young people walk around afraid,” commented Mr. Harnett.

Mr. Harnett shared that in a recent school survey 65% of students reported hearing ethnically or racially derogatory comments at least once a week. 60% say they hear derogatory comments about young women, changes in their bodies and their body sizes. 77% of students who participated in the survey hear the words “gay” or “queer” to mean bad or stupid every week, and two thirds of those students hear those words in that manner every single day. These numbers are outrageous, when you consider all the feelings that are hurt by these words, all the days ruined, all the pain, the unnecessary suffering. Mr. Harnett says “We need to acknowledge that words are used as weapons and those weapons are brought to and used in [this] school every single day.”

To the teachers, Mr. Harnett says: “If you walk by silently, you speak loudly with your silence.” His message is that too many times teachers turn a deaf ear to comments that devastate students. By writing this article, I hope to spread his word. If you’re a teacher, speak up, if you’re a student, don’t let it happen. Don’t speak down to your classmates and don’t let others. It’s each of us who set the standard. We have the power to save lives with our words.

“Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes,” Mr. Harnett told us during our school-wide assembly at Lisbon High School. And, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

More than 200 schools have a civil rights program, and that number should be on the rise. With growing knowledge of these violations, of the devastation, not only in schools but also at gas stations, on public streets, in private homes, and more, it is my hope that people can realize what a serious problem this is. On behalf of the Lisbon High School staff and students, I would like to thank Mr. Harnett, not only for his wonderful and informative speech, but also for his dedication and desire to make this world a better place.

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