Way back in 1996, Shane Daniels, a young black man from Riverhead, was beaten and nearly killed outside of a Westhampton Beach nightclub by a white man from Queens named Austin Offen, in a racially motivated attack that made headlines across the region.
Though the details of the case are now a dim part of history to those who don’t know Mr. Daniels personally, the beating’s legacy lives on in a series of programs designed to bring kids from school districts across the East End together for one day in October to discuss what they can do to prevent violence and to help each other stand up against intolerance and bullying.
It so happens that, since 2006, October has also been known as Bully Prevention Month, and the 100 students who attended the 18th annual East End Youth Leadership Summit, held last Friday at the Eastern Campus of Suffolk County Community College, had already spent much of the month learning to be more caring toward their fellow students.
Student council and club leaders spent the morning outside of their comfort zone, getting to know students from other districts on a day when many of their fellow students were at Homecoming pep rallies getting ready to compete with other schools.
Matt Pisani, a former rap star who grew up on Long Island, now runs a youth empowerment non-profit called Clean Slate Living. He spent the morning talking frankly with the students about his experiences with drugs and alcohol and the way he had once beat people down in rap battles.
“You can build people up with words or you can break them down,” he told the students. “When I was doing MC battles, I was a bully. Words hurt more than physical violence. I realized when I was selling my records, I was breathing negativity into little kids who listened to them.”
Mr. Pisani said he was saved by a friend: his mother, a teacher who told him she disapproved of his lifestyle but let him know she still loved him.
His co-worker, Annie Guthrie, then handed out brightly colored notecards to the kids, and asked them to write down what they look for in relationships. The same few words kept coming up from students from each of the 11 districts that attended: Love, trust, honesty, loyalty and respect. The kids then gave the cards to other kids who were total strangers, who marked up the cards with smiley faces, crumpled them up, wrote cryptic Homecoming messages like “Go Greenport! 5-0!), dog-eared the corners and then gave them back to their original owners.
Ms. Guthrie said those cards were now like many relationships: they can start out with the best of intentions, but they often get beaten up by external forces that press on the relationships.
“Be the friend who encourages and lifts people up!” Ms. Guthrie encouraged the students.
The students were split apart after breakfast from the crews from their schools that they rode in with, but one group from Mattituck High School had a lot to say about their school’s anti-bullying effort before they went off to make new friends.
Mattituck has celebrated “Unity Day,” a day where students wear orange and sign pledges to not bully each other, each Oct. 9 for several years now.
“I think it’s more successful this year than last,” said 11th grader Adrianna Lawson.
“I think bullying is improving in our school,” added 10th grader Samantha Kaelin. “There are moments of fights, but people are starting to treat each other just the same.
School social worker Andrea Nydegger, who accompanied the students to the summit, said the district has partnered this week with the Mattituck Cinema for student screenings of the film “The Bully Project” during the school day. The first class was slated to see the film today.
The students then discussed what they’re doing in their schools to combat bullying with Tracy Garrison-Feinberg of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County.
Students from East Hampton(where a student killed himself after being bullied last year) and Hampton Bays said they’ve been involved in an activity called “Cross the Line,” in which students draw a line down the center of the room and are asked to cross the line if they’ve ever been the victim of someone who had discriminated against them for reasons ranging from race to attractiveness to weight. Students are also asked to cross the line if they’ve witnessed someone being bullied, but done nothing to stop it. At the end of the day, students said, they were able to comfortably apologize to people they may have unwittingly hurt.
Ms. Garrison-Feinberg said some of the most important work she does is to help create “upstanders,” people who don’t just stand by when they see someone being bullied.
“That’s where you step in,” she told the students, adding that they could also do innovative projects like allowing kids to tell their stories and then acting them out in skits for other students.
“If you hear some great ideas, think about ‘how can I talk about this in my community,” she said, adding that she understands that high school is a hard time to be alive, but life does get better.
“Just remember, these are nowhere near the best years of your life,” she said.
The East End Prevention and Awareness Committee, a consortium of local youth advocacy groups that sponsors the Youth Leadership Summit, will also present an adult workshop titled “Building a Safe Community” on November 15 at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead. The program for that event is available online here.