NAUGATUCK — Respect: It’s not the easiest concept in the world to define. It can mean consideration toward peers, acquiescence to elders, the payment of esteem to those who rightly deserve it, or any combination thereof.
Older folks sometimes say the young don’t show enough of it, some notable celebrities—Kanye West and Serena Williams, among others—have recently overstepped the boundaries of proper comportment, and truly, Rodney Dangerfield could never get no respect.
But some Naugatuck High School students, faculty and administrators think courtesy and deference are important ideas for teens to get under their belts early—so much so, in fact, that they’ve instituted two committees aiming to promote what NHS Principal Fran Serratore terms a “positive school climate” in terms of students’ treatment of one another and their teachers.
“We have to create a culture of respect,” said Tim Reilly, an applied education and business teacher at NHS. “For some kids, this is the only place they’re going to get respect—or give it.”
It all started last December when three of Reilly’s Marketing II students got fed up with the ubiquitous profanity that echoes through hallways during passing times at the school.
They launched a public relations campaign entitled “Naugatuck High School: A Culture of Respect.” The project, which included a roughly-30-page paper, went on to take second place at a state-level Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) competition in the public relations category.
Soon, it also spawned a small club and, eventually, a full-blown committee comprising some 85 members.
“Once [those students] brought it up, I was like, we do have a respect problem in this school,” Respect Committee President Rosa Moriello said. “A lot of kids walk around disrespecting teachers and even their friends.”
Under the leadership of Moriello and Vice President Danielle Rodgers, who is also the senior class president, the committee has promoted respect by sporting loud T-shirts (Got Respect?), speaking with every English class (and, transitively, every student) about its message, and pushing for the formation of similar committees at City Hill and Hillside middle schools.
Members have presented their ideas to faculty, facilitated and attended leadership conferences, and even attracted the attention of the state Board of Education, which Reilly said is using the NHS program as something of a model.
They’ve also written a contract and pledge, which most members have signed, and it hangs in a glass display case on the first floor.
“It’s an opportunity for kids to do something,” Rodgers said. “They can take action on their desire to make the school a friendlier place. It may seem like an unreachable goal, but we have people really working for it.”
Though the scope of the initial project was to curtail the use of four-letter words, sexual language, and slurs in the hallways, it has since expanded to include encouragement of healthy student-to-student and student-to-teacher relationships and leadership qualities.
And though an understanding of tact and social etiquette might not make anyone a better academic student per se, it will help them get along in the world after graduation—at least according to Serratore’s thinking.
“Being able to work well with others and having an understanding of differences is going to help you in this global world,” he said. “Certainly we want to celebrate everyone’s uniqueness … if you get that sense, and that’s a skill you acquire going through these types of programs, that might help you in the job market. It might not make you a better math student, but certainly it will help you get along in the world.”
The second group, the Climate Committee, is composed of teachers, counselors, social workers and administrators who develop and implement strategies for promoting communication, consistency, and engagement among students.
Serratore said the Climate and Respect committees eventually “sort of morphed into the same thing. … It all becomes intertwined,” he said. “The two meet separately but are promoting the same attitudes.”
Reilly conceded that the entire faculty and staff would need to put in their best efforts if they wanted to make real changes, since teachers have the authoritative power to punish disrespectful students.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “Some teachers are a little bit cynical, and it’s hard not to be cynical given the problems this school district has. But we’ve got to be on the same page [as the students].”
He invoked former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s anti-graffiti campaign as an analogy to the kind of positive change dedicated enforcers can make. Giuliani had no tolerance for graffiti, Reilly said, and ordered it to be painted over on sight, which eventually frustrated the graffitists to a point that altered their behavior.
But Reilly is also sure students themselves, while not endowed with detention-wielding power, can make an even bigger impression on their peers by speaking out against bad behavior.
“I know it’s a big challenge,” he said, “and I might be kind of Polly-Anne about the whole thing, a little utopian, but what else have we got?”
Moriello and Rodgers say they’ve noticed a difference in the school’s overall climate since the two groups began to work together.
“You have to say it’s gotten better,” Moriello said, “We’ve grown from 20 or 30 kids to over 70. People have been speaking up a little bit more.”
The two said they’ve been commended by the school’s security officers and the Office of Student Affairs for their efforts.
The message they’re promoting ties right in with a program entitled “Names Can Really Hurt Us” that the Respect Committee facilitated in November for all sophomores.
That program was the brainchild of The Anti-Defamation League, an organization committed to combating bigotry and especially anti-Semitism.
The program piqued the interest of about 50 students and 10 teachers, who volunteered two days of after-school training by the league for the administration of the program, according to Serratore.
The full-day event consisted of informational skits, a panel discussion, an open-mic time for sharing, and group “breakout” sessions toward the end of the day.
Serratore said the program received positive feedback and that it would likely become an annual event.
“It was just so positive,” he said. “We hope to create an awareness of how to treat each other … and they were so enthusiastic about it. It was wonderful to see.”