A Christian group’s protests have spurred some schools to pull their involvement from next week’s Mix it Up at Lunch Day—an 11-year-old program meant to reduce prejudice among students that’s sponsored by the Teaching Tolerance project, part of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
But the American Family Association (AFA) doesn’t see the program that way. Instead, the Christian association has launched a campaign encouraging families to keep their children home on October 30, describing the event as a means to “establish the acceptance of homosexuality into public schools…” The AFA did not return calls requesting comment.
Schools that have participated in Mix It Up at Lunch Day for a decade have reported that the event is a great way for all students to break down social barriers—and even make new friends.
Deerfield (MA) Elementary School, which is holding their event on Friday October 26, has sixth graders lead table discussions over three different lunch periods.
“The students will say, ‘I already know everyone at this table,’ yet that’s not where they normally sit,” says Jeanine Heil, Deerfield’s principal. “This has allowed them to get to know more people at the school.”
The Teaching Tolerance project encourages schools to run Mix It Up at Lunch on October 30— allowing for students to mingle and meet kids they may not normally share their sandwich with on a regular school day. There are materials online, plus links to model schools, like Deerfield, including other ideas on how to mark the event.
About 2,755 schools are registered to participate this October, more than each of the last two years. However, Maureen Costello, Teaching Tolerance’s director, says that about 5,000 or more usually hold an event, but don’t officially sign up online. Because of the AFA’s protests this year, 250 schools asked to be unregistered—but then another 400 added their names to the official list, Costello said.
“Half [that unregistered] indicated they were doing so under duress and had every intention of doing the program on another day or under another name,” she says.
Eileen Hunter-Sweeney says her school hasn’t heard a peep about concerns about next week’s Mix It Up at Lunch Day at Hackberry Hill Elementary in Arvada, CO. Instead, the kids are excited about the chance to sit with new students, as they have every year since Teaching Tolerance launched the event.
“It’s an easy way to meet someone they want to sit with,” says Hunter-Sweeney, the school’s social worker. “They don’t have to have the nerve to walk across the cafeteria and meet someone new. They’re expected to.”
They’re not necessarily expected to wear big purple hats at James M. Quinn Elementary School in Dartmouth, MA. But that’s what Laurie O’Neil, the school’s family outreach social worker will don at next Tuesday’s lunch, where teachers, students and staff are encouraged to mix up their clothing as well. “The kids love it,” says O’Neil.
At Lynn (MA) English High School, students are invited to two Mix It Up dinners each year—one in the spring and one in October, held earlier this week, where about 150 students paid $3 each, enjoyed a catered dinner of pasta and salad, played Pictionary, and were assigned tables by picking a random number.
“The goal is to work with kids within the school to improve school climate and make everyone feel welcome and accepted,” says Ginny Keenan, peer mediation and mentoring coordinator and Friends of Rachel Club advisor, which sponsors the event.
And that, ultimately, is the goal organizers hope to reach: students seeing each other for the individuals they are—and accepting them into the school community.
“We hope the schools use it as an approach to build a positive climate for students and respect for each other,” says Costello. “We don’t want students to relate to stereotypes but to each other.”
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