In mid-October, English teacher Meg Pankiewicz and her students at Canon-McMillan High School had enough.
As the one-year mark for the massacre at Tree of Life synagogue approached, a few students at the school posted racially motivated videos on social media.
"It shook me at the core because of how passionately I feel and how dangerous hate is,” Ms. Pankiewicz said. “I always tell my students that hate speech never ends with hate speech, and I just felt that we needed to do something to combat this and to not be silent.”
The videos, which spread on Facebook, were investigated by North Strabane Township Police whose initial report found no crimes were committed. A school district investigation continues.
Ms. Pankiewicz and her students decided that they didn’t want their school to have the reputation that comes along with such an incident, and they were determined to do something to show that there was a united front against racism and hate. So Canon-McMillan partnered with the Anti-Defamation League for the “No Place for Hate” initiative, a self-directed program that helps create an atmosphere where all students can thrive.
“We wanted the whole school not to have a bad image,” said 17-year-old Tre’jahn Lewis, a senior who is one of the students leading the initiative. “It would have been easy to react the wrong way, but I feel like we handled it the best way we possibly could by forming something good.”
The effort quickly became school-wide with students, teachers, principals, administrators, janitors, secretaries and food service employees getting involved. When the required programs of the initiative are completed, Canon-McMillan will be designated as one of more than 1,600 schools nationwide as a “No Place for Hate” school. Several other schools in the region have that designation, including Pittsburgh Mifflin PreK-8 and the Upper St. Clair district.
As part of the initiative, students take a pledge to gain an understanding of those who are different, speak out against prejudice, promote respect and more. Student leaders, with help from Ms. Pankiewicz, made a video of their classmates reciting the pledge, including exchange students saying it in their native languages and a girl using sign language.
The art club painted a mural in the cafeteria that says “No Hate Just Love” and T-shirts are being sold with the same design. The money being raised will go to the ADL to support victims of hate crimes and genocide.
The head of the school’s food services approached Ms. Pankiewicz to ask how cafeteria staff could get involved, so they arranged a “Festival of Nations” to showcase ethnic foods and bring a global experience to the students.
At an after-school meeting Monday with nearly 100 teachers and administrators, Ms. Pankiewicz asked her colleagues to emphasize empathy in their classes.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday will serve as the start of “No Place for Hate Week” at the school, during which a theme such as empathy or education will be promoted each day.
“I think oftentimes people start initiatives once it’s too late,” said Giavonna Mollenauer, 17, another one of the initiative’s student leaders. “I don’t want to say we’re stopping something from happening — because God forbid something would have happened — but rather than waiting for something even worse to occur and then to respond to that, [we can] be proactive and make sure nothing does happen in the future.”
At the same time, but separate from the initiative, the Canon-McMillan School Board this month approved a semester-long course on the Holocaust, which will be taught by Ms. Pankiewicz.
Ms. Pankiewicz, who is not Jewish, has made Holocaust literature part of her classes for years. “If you’re human, and if you are a person of conscience, you cannot turn away from injustice,” she said.
When she first began teaching about the Holocaust nearly 20 years ago, she connected with survivor Sam Gottesman, of Pittsburgh, who came to speak to her class. They quickly formed a close friendship — she even called him “Zayde,” the Yiddish word for grandfather — which lasted until his death in June.
Ms. Pankiewicz said she believes Mr. Gottesman is responsible for making all of this happen.
“I just feel like he’s with me, guiding me to do all this,” she said. “I really feel that way.”
Article written and released by ANDREW GOLDSTEIN from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. --> https://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2020/01/16/Canon-McMillan-students-staff-No-Place-for-Hate-initiative/stories/202001170006