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By Collin Breaux

This coming December, students at Dana Hills High School will stand against discrimination in a unique way.

Kids on campus are welcome to create a holiday display that reflects a holiday personal to them, including Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, which will be displayed at the school during the first week of December. Members of the local community, in turn, are invited to come see the displays.

The cultural awareness project is one example of how students in the Capistrano Unified School District are working toward more understanding and less bigotry through the “No Place for Hate” initiative.

Numerous campuses in CUSD have pledged to take part in the national movement through their own individual school clubs. Students who participate under the guidance of an adult school supervisor take part in several activities throughout a given school year, which can include open discussions about topics such as biases and understanding cultural differences.

Schools can be designated as “No Place for Hate” areas by the Anti-Defamation League if they meet designated criteria through activities and events.

“One of the big things we like to touch on is inclusivity, and we work with our students in our special education department and make sure they feel connected to the school, as well as other students,” Dana Hills High student Sophia Anapoell said. “The pledge we take is about not using the ‘r’ word anymore and raising awareness on that.”

One activity that got a lot of people involved was supporting special needs students in a Special Olympics-style event, Anapoell said.

“During our 4th period, as many (students) as could filled up our football stands and cheered on the (special needs) students,” Anapoell said. “I definitely saw a lot more involvement and connection throughout the school. Everyone had a smile. I definitely saw a change.”

Kaitlin VanDerVeen, who is also in Dana Hills High’s “No Place for Hate” group, said they began training for the program last year over Zoom.

“Learning how to plan those events that can help promote inclusivity all around the school within all different types of groups of students was super-insightful,” VanDerVeen said. “I definitely find people a lot more aware of what they’re doing and the thing they’re saying. There has been a decrease in negative language around schools I’ve been around. That’s been a big change I’ve noticed.”

Anapoell said she has become more aware of her own words and actions, and how she connects with people, after taking part in “No Place for Hate.” She also realized she had implicit biases she wasn’t aware of before, and how to change those perspectives.

“It really reminded me that everyone is a person and we all just want to be treated the same,” Anapoell said. “It was super-helpful for me, because now I’m able to communicate with everyone in the sense of them being a person.”

VanDerVeen said she’s learned how to include everyone and plan events in which everyone can participate, and also how to set inclusive examples for others.

Sarai Torres is actively involved in the Dana Hills High “No Place for Hate” group as well, and said it helped the members learn how to “redirect” people when they aren’t being respectful or inclusive to others.

“Sometimes, I’ll hear people say things, and I’ll be, like, ‘You cannot say that’ or ‘Say it differently,’ ” Torres said. “That was really helpful.”

Sandy Mesa, activity director for Dana Hills High, acts as an adult overseer for the school’s chapter. Mesa said the program is a work in progress.

“We’re just going to continue to do the work on our end to create these opportunities to have an environment that’s equitable and inclusive of all students,” Mesa said. “It’s going to take time. We’re massaging it. We’re learning from it. I’m really thankful I have a great group of students in my leadership program that are 100% committed to doing that.”

San Clemente High School English teacher Sarah Kang oversees that school’s “No Place for Hate” group and said the national movement encourages schools to take ownership as far as their individual groups.

“Students come up with the activities. We have meetings they plan and come up with the ideas,” Kang said. “My job is just to help facilitate that on the admin level.”

Students at San Clemente High School list aspects of their identity on strips of interlinked paper as part of an activity for No Place for Hate, an initiative intended to improve cultural understanding on campus. Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Brislen

San Clemente’s “No Place for Hate” had ties to other existing school clubs, including “Cool to be Kind” and the Black Student Union. San Clemente’s chapter started in 2019, and initially hosted activities online during the COVID-19 pandemic before students were allowed to fully return to campus in person.

“One of the things for ‘Cool to be Kind’ was this spoken-word poem called ‘To This Day.’ That poem was about hurtful words,” Kang said. “We got the kids to discuss it.”

Other activities have included watching and discussing informative videos and signing an anti-hatred pledge that includes vows of understanding people who are different and speaking out against prejudice.

Students also got to write down and discuss aspects of their identity and how that impacts how they go through life—and then linked up their writings through a connected garland hung up in the classroom.

“The most important thing is for the students to know is this is a welcoming and caring and inclusive place. It was really clear that students didn’t feel it—many students,” Kang said. “We just want to make sure that it is. One of the ways is to openly acknowledge that we’re working towards that. There’s no perfect school that has the most perfect place that’s caring and inclusive. It is a goal that we strive for and work hard at every day.”

“No Place for Hate” is a program that allows students, teachers, administrators and school staff to work together to create an inclusive environment, Kang said.

“No Place for Hate provides an opportunity to openly express that and lets students know that we’re working on it and actively incorporating ways to build community on this campus,” Kang said. “It includes all groups.”

Administrators look at data from the California Healthy Kids survey regularly sent to students and then try to increase a sense of connection and caring based on the results, Kang said.

“We’ll ask students how they feel San Clemente is doing now, and to be constantly self-reflective and inward about this process,” Kang said.

Other CUSD campuses certified by “No Place for Hate” include San Juan Elementary School and Oso Grande Elementary School.

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com.                         

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