The rest of America could learn a lot from the students at Keller High School (KHS.) Young people at the suburban campus frequently discuss today’s hot button issues but the classroom conversations are always civil and respectful. There’s no room for hostility or divisiveness inside the blue and gold home of the Keller Indians.
Business and marketing teacher Lora Folger credits the school’s No Place for Hate program for promoting an atmosphere where students feel safe to express their thoughts and views. An education initiative of the Anti-Defamation League since 1999, No Place for Hate provides school communities across the country with a framework to combat bias, bullying and intolerance. Students sign a Resolution of Respect pledge and participate in three activities each year designed to promote diversity through discussion and active learning.
“It’s made a difference how people treat each other here,” suggests Folger, the program’s advisor. “We want to create a culture of character, respect and kindness for everybody.”
Americans have a right to express their own opinions, “but our students learn they can agree to disagree,” she adds. “You can listen to someone and respect them. That doesn’t mean you have to change your values.”
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The ability to debate political beliefs in a tolerant, non-judgmental way is something Chloe Stewart, 18, experienced during the fall semester when her government course focused on the 2016 presidential election. Like the rest of the country, most of her classmates were fiercely loyal to the candidate of their choice.
“Everyone else got so heated about the election but because we’re a No Place for Hate school, the kids here were able to have those discussions, keep them civil and then move on,” she insists. “You walk away from a conversation, look back on it as a positive experience, and realize you probably learned something about the other side because you listened with respect.”
Leader of the school’s No Place for Hate coalition of students, staff and community leaders from Keller, Stewart says student behavior is changing outside the classroom as well. When she arrived at KHS as a freshman, the campus was much like other high schools. There was a feeling of exclusiveness within groups and clubs. Cliques existed and her classmates weren’t challenged to break free of their comfort zone.
“Since we’ve implemented No Place for Hate, you can see how students are more willing to sit with that student who is by himself at lunch or talk to people in the hallway they don’t know,” explains the senior who will attend Baylor University in the fall. “It’s created more harmony within the school itself.”
Launched in 2015 by Operation Beautiful—a KHS club that encourages kindness—No Place for Hate cultivates life-changing attitudes organizers hope will continue beyond graduation. To emphasize the goals of diversity and respect, the student-led coalition plans activities that involve the entire school community. One of last year’s projects focused on cyber bulling on social networks. The lesson taught: Don’t make a comment if it’s unkind.
This year, Hats Off for Kindness demonstrated the school’s unity and inclusiveness when everyone—including the cafeteria staff—donned colorful, and sometimes unusual caps. In February, students were asked to write out what the word “respect” meant to them on red, heart-shaped paper. Their responses ranged from “standing for the national anthem” and “tipping your waiter” to “listening to others” and “thinking and acting in a positive way.”
The memos formed a heart collage displayed in the KHS cafeteria for a month. A “No Place for Hate” customized banner, awarded by the Anti-Defamation League, proudly hangs on the opposite end of the lunchroom.
For its last project of the year, the coalition hosted a Party on the Plaza to celebrate diversity and inclusiveness. Food trucks, music, ping-pong and other games brought students outside during lunch so they could, “get out of their routine, mingle and meet different kids,” Folger says.
In addition to amusements, participants saw CPR demonstrations and interacted with therapy dogs. Multicultural signs invited the student body to the event.
KHS is the first public high school in DFW to participate in the No Place for Hate program.
“We want everyone to feel they are included at Keller High School. It’s not just a place for one group or one type of kid,” the teacher asserts.
There are more than 300 No Place for Hate schools in the Austin and Houston areas but KHS is the first public high school in DFW to participate in the initiative.
“No Place for Hate is founded on the values we hold dear: respect, character, citizenship, kindness and inclusion,” explains KHS Principal Dr. Michael Nasra. “Keller High School is steadfast in its determination to promote a safe school climate.”
While it’s difficult to measure “kindness” and “respect” in crowded hallways, surveys filled out by students, parents and staff indicate KHS has become a more welcoming, positive place in the last two years. And there is one statistic proving the program’s influence.
“We saw a decrease in 121 discipline incidents from the 2014-15 to the 2015-2016 school year,” Dr. Nasra points out. “We are always looking to model appropriate behavior and find ways to connect with our students.”
The program’s success has caught the attention of other schools in the metroplex and Folger is now fielding several inquiries from interested campuses. A KHS student-produced video, used to promote No Place for Hate, lauds the program’s ability to create a safe space where everyone is appreciated.
“Kids want to feel they are valued as people,” Folger says explaining how the discussions and activities promote respect for individual and group differences. “They want to feel accepted and have others feels accepted. They want a positive learning environment.”
And when hateful speech or name-calling is overheard in the lunch line or classroom, students are quick to challenge the agitator with, “Hey man, that’s not cool!”
“We don’t have to check them, they check each other,” observes teacher Terri Blank.
When it comes to respect and civility, peers monitoring peers has more impact.
“After all, we’re with them 10 percent of the time,” she continues. “They’re with each other the other 90 percent.”
KHS senior Nathan Allen hears less teasing and offensive language in the halls during the day. No Place for Hate has generated more school pride and a spirit of inclusivity, according to the 18-year-old.
“I’ve seen acceptance skyrocket ever since it’s been initiated,” Allen says. “There’s a decrease in cliques and students are more willing to talk to that person they don’t know.”
Advocates of the anti-bullying, anti-bias program believe students thrive when school is considered a safe space. The soon-to-be graduate agrees.
“The program not only teaches diversity and equality but in general, it helps deal with stress,” he says.
Teenagers worry about grades and how they “fit in” socially with their classmates.
“If you have this community that supports you, and those people say your ideas matter and you matter, then you can be yourself and still feel accepted,” Allen asserts. “It helps you unlock your full potential.”
Respect for others and appreciating the richness of diversity are character-building lessons Folger hopes Keller students remember when they leave their alma mater. The coarsening of American society makes the goals of No Place for Hate even more important.
“Our students are growing up in a different world,” the educator says. “I want them to know how they act can make a difference.”