AUBURN – Several local teens recently told an audience of all ages how they are working to eliminate problems such as bullying, harassment, homophobia and other socially unacceptable behaviors among their peers. The students are members of civil rights teams at Auburn Middle School and Edward Little and Lewiston high schools.

The students and advisers participated in a program called Teens Talk About Tolerance presented at the United Methodist Church. Their objective was to enlighten parents and other interested community members about the challenges and rewards of diversity as it is experienced by teens.

Andie Locke, Safe School coordinator for the Auburn School Department, was facilitator. She distributed copies of “Taking Responsibility: Standards for Ethical and Responsible Behavior in Auburn Schools and Community,” which was written and published several months ago.

The panelists explained the origin and purpose of civil rights teams and discussed difficult issues the teen community faces. They agreed that the students themselves are the strongest force for change. A unified stand against hate-based and vulgar language can be most effective, they said, because disapproval from one’s peers carries more weight today than threats of censure from teachers or other authority figures.

Minority students, those with disabilities or those with alternative sexual orientations, say they generally feel safer in today’s schools and community than they did a couple of years ago, the panelists told the audience.

However, more work needs to be done to improve community-wide resistance to bigotry, vulgarity and insensitivity. Students representing minority groups on the panel said they still face many verbal slurs and improper actions from some individuals.

Insensitivity to religious diversity as well as mental and physical challenges among the student population continue to be problems. The panelists said interest in joining the schools’ civil rights teams peaked soon after the period in which Somali immigration to the area brought a white supremacist group to the area.

Local support for the new Somali population raised awareness, and the students said acceptance of racial diversity has gradually improved in the schools. Membership on the civil rights teams has since dropped, but it remains at a level that represents commitment, they said.

Following the panel’s presentation, the audience asked questions. The students explained some measures they hope to take at their schools to increase civil rights awareness such as role-playing exercises and displaying posters with some “shock words” on school walls.

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