Fostering a more diverse understanding
South Ocean Middle School students participated in diversity exercises spurred by Suffolk County Community College’s Embracing Our Differences banners. Pictured are, front row: Spencer Auer, Jeffrey Tejada and Max Venezia. Middle row: Jacob Christie, Juliana Hicks and Samantha Claros. Back row: Principal Tim Piciullo and assistant principal Dr. Paula Mays. The group stands in front of Rachel Goldsmith’s “A Random Sampling,” celebrating jazz, hip-hop, heavy metal and country.

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Fostering a more diverse understanding

Story By: LINDA LEUZZI
11/5/2015


Sitting with several sixth- and seventh-grade students at South Ocean Middle School this week divulged a lesson in young wisdom. Once they got going about diversity, the profound statements kept coming.

“I definitely do think diversity is a thing we should embrace,” said Spencer Auer on Monday. “We need to be aware of racism and sexism and comments like, ‘black people can’t swim; everyone from the Middle East are terrorists; Asian women can’t drive.’ It makes you really think, where does it come from?”

Juliana Hicks recalled a lesson where students had to write their characteristics on a paper star and then engage in a dialogue with others. “A lot were surprised by what we had in common,” she said.

Jacob Christie was a bit more philosophical. 

“Two 10-year-olds, they usually like the same things,” he said. “When you’re younger, it’s easier to relate. When you’re older, there’s so much that you’ve learned, it’s harder.”

The 27 colorful Embracing Our Differences banners, a project created by Suffolk County Community College students under the college’s Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity and Human Understanding, went up last week in front of the middle school, kicking off a number of activities principal Tim Piciutto has expanded on. They included a “Mix it up” at lunch theme, where each student was assigned to a table other than their usual group of friends, urging them to get past their comfort zone and learn the other guy or girl they never talked to was pretty cool after all.

Diversity efforts ramped up in the Patchogue-Medford School District after the Marcelo Lucero murder took place by a pack of Pat-Med teens in 2008. The Suffolk Center on the Holocaust, Diversity and Human Understanding began bringing their banners over each year after the incident when then-principal Linda Pickford, upon a suggestion by Mayor Paul Pontieri, felt that art would be a good medium for students to express their feelings about diversity, exclusion and the tragedy that took place. Lucero’s brother Joselo was invited to take part as well. 

The anniversary of Lucero’s death is this Sunday, Nov. 8 and a memorial is planned at the Plaza Cinema and Media Arts Center on Terry Street. A program is planned from noon to 1 p.m. The program will be centered on local youth songwriters and musicians, a Pat-Med graduate filmmaker and one from the UN Plural Plus Youth Video Festival. Joselo Lucero will present the Marcelo Lucero Award to two filmmakers. Rabbi Morse and the Boys and Girls Club of the Bellport Area will also participate. After the presentation, participants will walk to the site where Marcelo was killed.

“After the murder, I was sitting on the Suffolk County Community College board, which I still do, and the Suffolk Center had an ‘Embracing Our Differences’ exhibit and I was very impressed with the message,” said Pontieri. “I spoke with Steven Schrier, the Suffolk Center’s executive director about putting the banners up at the school. One of the things I understood from the Lucero murder is that a community should never forget what happened, who we are as a community and what it means to go forward. By placing banners in front of the school, which is located around the corner from where the murder took place and across the street from the church Marcelo went to, you’re giving the message to not forget.”

Even Piciullo and assistant principal Dr. Paula Mays switched formal roles, standing behind the food service counter doling out the mozzarella sticks and vegetables at lunch.

Samantha Claros’s health class went outside to look at the banners and were encouraged to select the one that affected them and their families the most. She picked the one that depicted snowflakes, because “it’s how no two are the same and how no two people are the same,” she said. Jeffrey Tejada announced, “no matter how different you are, you still have something in common.”

“In English classes, teachers identified common phrases used to discriminate ethnicity or gender,” Piciullo said. “The kids wrote these things hearing about their own ethnicity, like ‘Mexicans do landscaping’ or ‘Jewish people have big noses.’ They blew up balloons, wrote the phrases on the balloons and then popped them.” It was a lesson in letting go.

“We talked about how one person calls someone ‘gay,’” Auer added, “and how it can offend someone. And we don’t really talk about this that much.”

Piciullo said one of the benefits of his middle school is that “it’s such a diverse building; they get to see all races and diversity and realize their fellow student is just like any other kid,” he said.

Max Venezia ended Monday’s conversation with this one. “Tolerance does not mean that we agree or disagree or ignore each other,” he said thoughtfully. “It means we make space for other people’s opinions.”