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Suburban high school embarks on anti-bullying program
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2013-03-06

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Barrington High School has taken a bold step to combat bullying, showcasing 26 teachers in poster-sized photos—with tape on their mouths and NOH8 stenciled on their faces—that are now hung throughout the northwest suburban school.

The photos were taken at school during the last week of January by United Colors, Barrington's GSA, and hung around school in mid-February.

"The goal of the posters was to raise awareness of the discrimination and bullying that happens in and out of the building," said Tony Venetico, a math teacher at the high school and sponsor of the student-run project. "Teachers who participated were not taking any political stance on same-sex marriage the way the NOH8 Campaign was originated, but rather, trying to remind everyone that there are so many people who feel silenced and have no one to speak to and feel completely alone. The campaign we did was to prevent discrimination and bullying of all types, including LGBT discrimination, but also keeping in mind the students who battle depression, anxiety, weight issues, different religious views, etc."

More than 55 photos of teachers were taken and 27 of them were chosen to post around the school. All teachers who participated are represented, some in group photos, most in individual photographs, including principal Steve McWilliams.

"I had the posters displayed in my classroom for several days before they were posted around the school and it was really interesting watching students come in and look at them for the first time," Venetico said. "I got a lot of questions, [such as], 'Is this a gay thing?' or 'Why do they have tape on their mouths?' and it led to being able to have some very frank and honest conversations about the number of students who are afraid to come to school and feel isolated, like they have no one on their side.

"Of course I am here to teach math, but when you can have that heart to heart with a student between classes, it really makes my day feel worthwhile."

The teachers chosen to be photographed were selected by students in the club, "those teachers that they knew, looked up to, and felt comfortable asking to participate," Venetico said. "We have all departments in the building represented."

Venetico confirmed that some Barrington teachers choose not to participate, but several others who were not a part of the project asked how they could get involved. No additional photo-shoots are planned, he said.

"The support I felt from many staff was heartwarming, that this is such an important issue for so many people," Venetico said.

"This campaign is really important for several reasons. First and foremost, this is a topic that is much easier swept under the rug and ignored. The fact that we were able to get nearly 30 teachers to put tape on their mouths and participate in something like this meant the world. Teachers are in the profession they are because they want to see all students reach their potential. This campaign also is really important because it is made up of people who the students in the school see and interact with on a daily basis. It means much more when it comes from your own backyard rather than having stock anti-bullying posters hung around the building. Hopefully students will see this message being sent from people who they look up to and respect and that will really let the idea behind the campaign sink in a bit more. If we can change just a few attitudes, we hit a home run in my eyes."

Venetico, 33, who lives in South Elgin, has been teaching for 10 years and this is his sixth year at Barrington. He grew up on the northwest side of Chicago.

"One of the goals I set for myself as a teacher is to be that voice that I so desperately longed for when I was in school," Venetico said. "I went to an all-boys Catholic high school and it was not an overall positive experience. I struggled to feel comfortable with who I was and to feel loved and accepted at times. To think about how difficult high school was for me, it's amazing to think that I chose to live the rest of my working career in one. I want to make a difference. Unfortunately, some of the things I am doing are not popular with some staff and some members of the community. I am working on being the visible activist that these students who feel so alone see working on their behalf. It's important for them to feel like someone is fighting for them and willing to put their neck on the line for them. I know I can't change the world, but, if I can just help a few people with every project I participate in feel a little different about equality, then I am hoping they will pay it forward and start spreading that message. No one can do this alone—we need all the help we can get to make our city, community, nation, and world a happier more comfortable place for people to live their lives."

So, is anti-gay bullying an issue at Barrington?

"Fortunately, in 2013, times are much different than even when I graduated [from high school] in 1997," Venetico said. "LGBT people are more visible in society and it doesn't have quite the stigma that it once did. Students are able to be more open with who they are than people used to have to be. Nonetheless, there is still discrimination and comments like 'that's so gay' which we try to catch and correct. It's still out there—religions and politicians are vocally preaching messages of discrimination, [so] some students feel conflicted with how they should feel about it.

"I don't think BHS is unique. All schools have bullying and it's a nationwide problem that we must address. I realize that kids will be kids, and some of it is not meant to be malicious. However, what is considered by some students as playful teasing can really cause a lot of harm on the receiving end. A lot of students laugh it off in front of their peers, but [still] have that deep pain that they carry with them. We have lost too many students to suicide over the past few years as a nation and we need to make all people feel comfortable with whom they are in their own skin."

Especially with the bullying that now can be a 24/7 zap, thanks to social media.

"Bullying has gone from something that happens at school or on the playground to something that cannot be escaped," Venetico said. "When I was growing up, you could go home and lock yourself in your room and have a safe place where none of those things could touch you. In today's day of cell phones, Twitter and Facebook, students cannot escape the harassment and bullying; that's one of the main reasons bullying has been so much more in the public eye these past few years. It really is a nationwide problem that we all need to work on. Unfortunately, kids don't learn discrimination and hatred—they are taught it. We need to work on the adults and messages we are demonstrating to our youth before we can expect them to do better."

A video about the project was shown to the school (3,000+ students) last week: youtu.be/WYokR9nC03g .


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