Gloucester County high schoolers battle stereotypes with event

Gloucester County high school students met at Rowan University for the 12th annual Students United for Respect and Equality summit. A workshop taught teens to reject stereotypes.
Gloucester County high school students met at Rowan University for the 12th annual Students United for Respect and Equality summit. A workshop taught teens to reject stereotypes. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 23, 2013

Dancers swirled to an ever-faster drumbeat. "Condom Man" tumbled into a skit. "Slutty Girl" sat on a guy's lap, while "Snob" turned up her nose.

The humor on display Thursday morning at Rowan University, at a "summit" of hundreds of high school students from across Gloucester County had a serious purpose. It was intended to empower them to deal with issues that can vex people their age: bullying, homophobia, HIV, peer pressure.

"I want them to realize they're not the only ones dealing with it," said Renee Richardson, 50, an art teacher at West Deptford High School who brought 28 of her students.

Students in faraway Kenya also cope with such tough issues, they were told by someone familiar with that place.

Jennifer Satterfield, an English teacher at Clearview Regional High School who is raising funds to build a school in Nairobi's Kibera slum, described the realities of life for girls who live there: the ever-present risk of sexual assault, hunger that distracts from studies, lack of electricity.

And yet, she said, they keep going.

"They have huge dreams. Huge dreams, just like everyone in this room," Satterfield said, exhorting her audience to "find something that you are passionate about and stick with it."

Backing Students United for Respect and Equality's gathering, now in its 12th year, were a number of law enforcement agencies, including the county Prosecutor's Office and the state Juvenile Justice Commission.

From their perspective, such training equips young people to stay out of trouble, said Shannon Fuerneisen, who oversees community programs for the Prosecutor's Office.

"If people are making positive decisions, crime is going to go down. . . . There's less hate crimes, there's less bias crimes," she said.

At a workshop, Kyle Harrison tried to get across another practical message.

"It's Condom Man!" the cape-wearing Clearview junior announced to a round of laughter as he dramatically tumbled into the room, scattering condoms around him.

The skit came out of a health class where the students discussed risky behavior, Harrison said afterward.

"We learn about topics that are hard for teachers to discuss," he said. "I think hearing it from someone who's on their level makes it easier."

Elsewhere, students playing various high school stereotypes milled about on stage as if in a game show.

Each revealed something to take the edge off the stereotype. Slutty Girl, it turned out, was sexually assaulted.

"Don't label people because you think they're a certain way, because you never know what's really underneath," said Billy Dickson, the Clearview senior who played the part of the game show host.

Rejecting their labels, the stereotypes took turns reciting from Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise":

You may shoot me with your words

   You may cut me with your eyes

   You may kill me with your hatefulness

   But still, like air, I'll rise.


Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, jlai@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @elaijuh.

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