Wilson Middle School students on Tuesday broke rank with their traditional social circles, mingling with a diverse range of schoolmates as part of the national anti-bullying event Mix It Up Day.
Launched by the Southern Poverty Law Center and spearheaded at Wilson by English teacher Jolie Augustine, Mix It Up Day is designed to build tolerance on school campuses by facilitating interactions between students who typically wouldn't interact.
"We need to start with the kids," Augustine said. "Teachers and administrators can be there to talk to, but ultimately what I am trying to do is empower the kids."
Bullying, propelled by several serious incidents, is a hot topic nationally. In January, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself after allegedly being bullied at her South Hadley, Mass., high school. And in September, 18-year-old Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi jumped off a bridge, allegedly because his roommate streamed a romantic encounter with a male friend live on the Internet.
Advancements in communication technology have added an additional layer to student interaction, said Kris Kohlmeier, who teaches U.S. history at Wilson Middle School. And while social networking occurs mostly at home, it affects what happens at school.
"Bullying is really in the forefront because these kids have way more ways to communicate with one another," Kohlmeier said.
About half of Wilson's 1,400 students took part in Mix It Up Day on Tuesday, dividing themselves into six groups distinguished by different color nametags. And in 10-minute stints, the groups cycled around the patio lunch area.
Initially, students approached one another hesitantly. But soon they were exchanging handshakes, backslaps and hugs. Everyone was encouraged to make 10 new friends.
"It is always good to meet new people," said Maggie Baboomian, 13. "You can learn things from them."
Teachers and student volunteers helped to facilitate, catching those standing by themselves, walking them over to clusters of students and making the necessary introductions.
"Sometimes you see people that are lonely, and this helps people become friends," said Gevork Sarkissian, 14.
Mix It Up Day is not just for the benefit of the students, Augustine said, but also provides an opportunity for teachers and administrators to discuss policies on bullying. Wilson officials manage bullying on a case-by-case basis, Augustine said.
She cited one incident where a group of girls created a Facebook page to post mean and antagonistic content about another female student.
Mix It Up Day can help to change the school culture from one of exclusiveness to one of inclusiveness, Kohlmeier said.
"Who knows, maybe the next day they will start sitting together and realize how similar they really are," he said.