This fall, teams of 25 teens at each of Canyons School District's four high schools hope to root out prejudice and build inclusive environments for all students.
On Tuesday, Canyons completed a two-day leadership training for 100 students with Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a longtime civil-rights group based in Montgomery, Ala.
The training, and partnership with the center, were born from a Canyons probe this spring into incidents of racism at Alta High. The investigation began after a junior, a white male, allegedly wore a Ku Klux Klan-like hood and made pro-Nazi references at a school assembly. A week later, two students circulated a text message showing a Klansman in front of a burning cross. All three were cited by Sandy police and referred to juvenile court.
In April, Canyons reported it had "confirmed" there were additional "serious racial incidents" at Alta, but the school district didn't reveal the details. The district referred those incidents to Sandy Police.
Canyons administrators visited Alta High classrooms in the spring to talk about racism and its history. The district decided to spend more time teaching students at its four high schools how to appreciate one another's differences. The two-day leadership workshop has focused not only on race and ethnicity, but on national origin, sexual orientation, gender and socioeconomic status.
"We want to make environments that are inclusive of all children, where children feel safe and where they feel they can go to school free of harassment," said Jeff Haney, a spokesman for Canyons district. "We feel the people who are largely responsible for creating those types of environments are the students themselves. We want to start with the student leaders who can lead out and show by example."
Canyons recruited 100 students from Alta, Jordan, Brighton and Hillcrest high schools who are involved in student government, clubs and athletic teams. The district and Teaching Tolerance will host additional trainings and forums for teachers and parents in August. And there will be more discussions with high school students in September.
"Most of the students participated in a very active way, sharing their stories," said Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, after Tuesday's training. "At the end of the day, I think they came away with this heightened respect for their differences â¦ The ultimate idea is that to get past stereotypes and to get past making judgments of people based on the labels you have for them is to get to know them."
Alta High parent Sam Cosby, whose biracial son made the initial complaint about the assembly incident, praised Canyons for initiating dialogue with students about diversity.
"It's something that needs to be done," he said. "What's going on there [in Canyons] is really affecting the whole state. It's making other districts take a look at what is going on in their district."
But his own son will not be affected by the program. The teen has been shunned by his peers, and even harassed, since coming forward, Cosby said. His son has decided he does not want to return to Alta for his senior year so he will complete his coursework at an online charter school.
Alexandria Magee, an incoming senior at Alta High who attended the two-day training, said she hopes she can make every student feel welcome at her school. Next year, she will be the vice president of Alta's first Gay-Straight Alliance, a student club aimed at promoting a safe environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
"I hope that if there are other students who feel [like they are not included at Alta], they will be able to show up and see that we're trying to make a difference in school and that their voices will be heard," Magee said. "That's kind of what our goal is next year."