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Groton Middle School Program Calls On Students To Solve Problems

U.S. Department of Justice program was introduced at Cutler and will be expanded to West Side.

Cutler Middle School started a program last week that gathers student leaders, asks them to identify school problems, come up with solutions, and help improve the school climate

The same program will be started shortly at West Side Middle School.

The U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service runs the program called "SPIRIT" and was called in by Safe Futures, formerly the Women’s Center. The Women’s Center ran the “violence is preventable" program in Groton’s middle schools last year and noticed tensions over the consolidation of three middle schools into two.

Groton closed Fitch Middle School at the end of last year, and moved the students into Cutler and West Side.

How it works

SPIRIT, which stands for Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together, is different from a student council, where student leaders are elected by their peers, or peer mediation, where students meet one-on-one with classmates to help them work out disputes.

Instead, SPIRIT gathers 100 students leaders, and not just the top students, to talk about the school climate. Students are chosen by staff because they display leadership in academics, on the playground, on the bus, in athletics and even among their peers who are not doing so well.

It then collects these 100 students, divides them into groups, and has them list the main issues at a school. Then it gathers the students again to come up with solutions.

Ultimately, the teachers, students and principal select a group of about ten to work with administrators and discuss which solutions are working and what else might be at issue.

Francesco Amoroso, the regional director in the Justice Department's Community Relations' Boston office, said the goal is to encourage realistic solutions that have noticable impact.

“It’s important to get the word out with the rest of the student body that this is a group that gets results,” he said.

How it started

The Spirit program started in Los Angeles, after the riots following the beating of Rodney King. Los Angeles schools were shut down for a time, and the police chief and school superintendent worried that clashes in the streets would overflow into the schools, Amoroso said.

So they called in the justice department, which then set up the program to meet with the groups separately, then mix the students to come up with plans all would find satisfactory.

Typically, SPIRIT is called into a school when problems have already erupted. But Amoroso said it is not always associated with racial tension and has been used throughout New England. Amoroso said Groton deserves credit for taking it on early, even though the issues in town are different.

“In this case, it is clearly a proactive move by the principal, and he should be commended,” he said of Cutler Principal Robert Pendolphi.

Pendophi said the transition from three to two middle schools has been smooth, but added that students know best what the issues are.

“Just because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” he said.

Economic tension and bullying

The students at last week’s sessions identified several issues, including these: tensions over who has money and who doesn’t, bullying and time getting to lockers.

Noah Kennedy, 11, said one issue raised was some of the Fitch kids calling the Cutler kids snobby and some of the Cutler kids making rude comments about students from “low-income housing.”

Kennedy said if students view each other as equals, they’ll get to know each other and build a community of one school.

He said bullying was also raised, because some students may see it but don't want to be labeled a snitch. He said the students agreed it would be safe to tell a teacher and stay anonymous.

Eliza Williams, 13, said bullying sometimes takes the form of rumors or excluding people. She said the group agreed to speak up if they see this.

Kennedy said he believes the program will make a difference.

“I think it will make a really big impact,” he said.

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