Teaching tolerance in a diverse world

Melissa Siegel of Huntersville still isn't sure why a bully beat her so badly in the fourth grade that her parents withdrew her from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system for four years.

“Maybe it was because I was little for my age, or maybe it was because I was Jewish,” says Siegel, 17, who is 4-feet-10.

No matter the cause, Siegel has devoted herself in recent years to taking a stand against bullying in the community's schools.

This includes working as a volunteer with the Charlotte Coalition for Social Justice, one of the United Way's least-known nonprofit agencies.

Last year, it received only $2,467 in designated donations from United Way's 100,000 local donors. However, United Way was able to supply another $132,000 by dipping into the Community Care Fund of undesignated donations. The donations represent about a quarter of the coalition's budget.

Siegel says she learned of the coalition after transferring from a charter school to North Mecklenburg High School, where she is now a senior.

“I attended a diversity workshop and I really felt I belonged,” she says. “It wasn't like school, where you just sit and learn about things. I felt I could do something. I felt I could make a difference.”

She now spends two to three days a week working as an intern for the coalition, which specializes in programs that promote tolerance in the county's public and private schools.

This includes tackling not only racial issues, but controversial topics such as prejudice based on religion or sexual orientation.

Executive Director Nyala Hunt acknowledges the coalition does a lot of talking about issues that are “uncomfortable,” and may give some people the impression that it does not represent the mainstream. However, she says its mission includes such common-sense goals as keeping bullied kids from quitting school and away from drugs, alcohol and gangs.

“When a lot of people hear the term ‘bullying,' they think of it as something that happens to everyone, and young people need to just ‘get over it,'” says Hunt. “But it's a growing problem. We can only speculate why, but it could have something to do with struggles over changing demographics. That includes immigration and also religion, in the era after 9-11, when Muslim young people can be called terrorists.”

Another form of bullying could also soon be on the rise, involving taunting over economic status. Nearly 50 percent of CMS students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches last year, and the numbers are expected to grow as more parents are laid off. “Peers can be merciless, making fun of someone's clothes or other things associated with living in poverty,” says Hunt.

The coalition is already seeing an uptick in interest. Last year, 1,000 local high school students participated in coalition programs, a 60 percent increase over the previous year. This included 400 students who took part in pilot anti-bullying initiatives at five CMS high schools.

Many of those students didn't see themselves as victims. Included were former bystanders, who felt an obligation to confront bullies.

Melissa Siegel has never forgotten that a teacher noticed – but did nothing – when she was being beaten in the fourth grade.

“I guess he didn't think it was a big deal. … Adults want to think they understand, and that bullying will go away if they ignore it,” she says.

“But times have changed. The only way this is going to go away is for people to take a stand.”

That won't necessarily make you popular at school, she says.

“But sometimes, it's better to be unpopular.”