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    Wednesday, August 17, 2022

    Norwich students tackle stresses, social issues

    Norwich — Eighth-grader Valeria Yraita held the crowd's attention as she detailed the pressures on students at Kelly Middle School.

    As a student of Peruvian heritage, she knows Latino students are subject to offensive stereotypes about immigrants. Kids are bullied. And students in distress often can't find help.

    "They don't talk about suicide, it's a sensitive topic," Valeria said of adults to the crowd of students and nonprofit representatives Wednesday afternoon. "They say: 'there's help' not 'I'm here to help.'"

    Valeria and her fellow classmates engaged in those tough conversations as part of a forum sponsored by The Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut at the school.

    The goal is civic, respectful conversation among people who may disagree on challenging topics.

    "My thought was we really wanted to get to at the heart of what's going on with young people," said Community Foundation President Maryam Elahi.

    The adults in the crowd, from donor organizations and nonprofit partners of the foundation, were there to listen as students from Kelly Middle and area high schools were divided into discussion groups. The groups were led by moderators from Hearing Youth Voices, a social justice organization based in New London that facilitates these discussions with the aim of bringing about positive change.

    The foundation already has held one such conversation, "Do the Arts Matter?," last month at Connecticut College, Elahi noted, and have two more in the works for later this year.

    Feedback from the discussion groups was collected and presented to administrators at each of the schools, and grants were available from the foundation for organizations at the school that seek to keep the conversation going.

    Chloe Murphy, and other group leaders from Hearing Youth Voices, set rules to make sure that all participants would feel comfortable speaking their minds. She called it a "safe and brave space," meaning that students should be courageous with their words and if they were to say something that hurt another student, they could meet up afterward and talk about it.

    "Your truth is a truth, not the truth, even though you don't agree," said Hearing Youth Voices moderator Shineika Fareus, who said students should "agree to disagree."

    Murphy, leading a group of a dozen Kelly Middle School students, asked them about the "joys and challenges" of their lives within their communities. Shy at first, students began talking about fights that happen in school when kids get wound up during lunch and between classes.

    "I think an after-school program really helped," seventh-grader Alandra Williams said, recalling the Girls Group after-school program she attended at Bennie Dover Elementary School in New London. "After school, kids who weren't friends got to know each other."

    Alandra and other students, including eighth-grader Anna Hebert, said they would like to see teachers intervene, ask about troubling behavior and follow up rather than pick an easy consequence.

    "I think the reason people act out is to get the teachers' attention," Alandra added, noting that some students will skip school just to get on their teacher's radar. "Talk to them and see why, instead of just sending them to the principal's office."

    Murphy pointed out that many of the solutions that the group was suggesting were related to the idea of restorative justice, and she encouraged the students to learn more and look into forming their own group.

    "I think you all can be some powerful leaders," she said.

    n.lynch@theday.com

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