Canon-McMillan High School students are sending a message: At their school, there is “No Hate, Just Love.”

The high school launched a “No Place for Hate” campaign during Martin Luther King Jr. Week, aimed at promoting tolerance and acceptance.

Led by English teacher Meg Pankiewicz and a group of students, the school partnered with the Anti-Defamation League for the initiative, which celebrates diversity and fights bias, discrimination and bullying in schools.

The initiative is a response to an October incident in which high school students used racial slurs in videos posted on Facebook.

The North Strabane Township Police Department investigated the videos and concluded no crimes had occurred.

But, said Pankiewicz, other students who have been targets of racial and other bias started approaching her to share their fears.

“When the videos came out, it was about the same time as the anniversary of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. And with hate incidents rising in schools, I felt like hate was so present and so emboldened that I wanted to do something,” said Pankiewicz, who teaches a Holocaust unit in her English class.

Students decided it was time to push back against hate and asked Pankiewicz what they could do.

Their solution was the student-led No Place for Hate program.

“I want everybody to be accepting and loving, and to help out anyone who needs it,” said Lezlee Gomola, a junior who is a member of the No Place for Hate leadership committee. “I want this to be a safe and happy and healthy environment.”

No Place for Hate became a school-wide project, with students, teachers and other staff members enthusiastically participating.

One of the centerpieces is a large “No Hate, Just Love” mural the art club painted in the cafeteria and students signed during lunch class throughout the week.

Students produced and sold “No Hate, Just Love” T-shirts, and proceeds will be donated to the ADL Victims of Hate Crimes and Genocide fund.

Students also took a pledge to “gain an understanding of those who are different, to speak out against prejudice and discrimination, to support those who are targets of hate, to promote respect for people, and to help foster a prejudice-free school.”

Pankiewicz and the students recorded a video of students reciting the pledge, including foreign exchange students speaking in their native languages and one student using sign language.

The weeklong campaign featured a theme day each day, promoting key tools in the fight against hate, such as unity, empathy, peace, and education.

Cafeteria staff organized a “Festival of Nations” and prepared ethnic foods and pastries to provide a global experience for students.

Senior Carissa Serafino, a member of the leadership committee, said students should never feel unsafe and unwelcome in school.

“Stepping up and showing kids they are not alone and that they have somebody in their corner is a big deal,” said Serafino. “Treat people with kindness. I really believe in that.”

Tre’Jahn Lewis, a senior who will be attending Slippery Rock University on an academic scholarship in the fall, is another of the student leaders. He and the group have talked about leaving a legacy of acceptance.

“Most of the kids are picking up the message. They’re listening. I want this to keep going,” said Lewis, who is biracial and has been a target of racial bias. “We want to pass the message down for years and years. No hate, just love.”

There has, undoubtedly, been an increase in hate incidents in schools in the United States.

The Southern Poverty Law Center documented a surge of incidents involving racial slurs and symbols, bigotry, and the harassment of minority children in the nation’s schools since 2016.

Teachers told SPLC in informal surveys that they’d witnessed an uptick in incidents involving swastikas, derogatory language – including anti-Semitic and homophobic slurs, Nazi salutes and Confederate flags.

More than two-thirds of 2,776 educators who responded to a SPLC questionnaire witnessed a hate or bias incident in their school during the fall of 2018.

Those statistics are alarming to Pankiewicz, who earlier this month received approval from the Canon-McMillan School Board to teach a semester-long course on the Holocaust.

“I tell my kids hate speech doesn’t end with hate speech,” said Pankiewicz. “I teach in my Holocaust unit that if you’re silent, you’re complicit. I try to teach students to be proactive when injustices occur. This is an opportunity to do something good here.”

She asked teachers to promote empathy in the classroom.

Pankiewicz also was motivated to take action because of a close friendship she struck up with Holocaust survivor Sam Gottesman of Pittsburgh, whom she met about 17 years ago when he spoke to her class.

Gottesman, who died in June at age 95, was shaken by the Tree of Life shootings and the spate of hate crimes.

“He kept saying, ‘This is how it starts,’” said Pankiewicz. “I felt like the stars were all aligning for me to do this, and I know he would want me to.”

The school district also has taken action to provide a more safe and protective environment for students.

The district brought in Dr. Adolph Brown, a renowned clinical educational psychologist, author and humorist, who spoke at a high school assembly.

It is implementing Rachel’s Challenge, a program designed to create a culture of kindness and respect among students.

Western States Center will also conduct a seminar for administrators on confronting White Nationalism in schools.

Pankiewicz noted that Monday is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, where more than 1.1 million people died.

“The Holocaust the single most important event we can teach our young people. It teaches them the dangers of hate, the dangers of silence,” said Pankiewicz. “With the rise of hate speech and hate crimes, it has never been more important to listen to the voices of the victims of this genocide. Our No Hate initiative is trying to do a small part.”

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