October 30, 2012

‘Mix It Up at Lunch Day’ aims to break down clique culture in schools

When it’s time for lunch at Wilbur Middle School, sixth-grader Joey Duncan usually sits with his friend Logan.

When it’s time for lunch at Wilbur Middle School, sixth-grader Joey Duncan usually sits with his friend Logan.

Jacob Harmon usually sits with his buddy Isaiah.

Daiquardi McKay and Kaleerah Abercrombie like to mix it up and sit with people they don’t know but, “Most people think that’s weird,” Kaleerah says.

Not on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, the Wichita middle school participated in “Mix It Up at Lunch Day,” a nationwide effort aimed at combating bullying by breaking down invisible barriers in the school cafeteria.

“Lunch is one of those times when kids just sit with their small groups of friends,” said Jackie Tabor, a health teacher at Wilbur who helps advise Speak Up Wilbur, a student-led anti-bullying group.

“Our hope is that when kids sit with other kids, someone they don’t know very well, they’ll feel more empathy for who that person is and what they might be going through.”

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, launched the Mix It Up initiative a decade ago, but this was Wilbur’s first time participating.

Eighth-grader Tyaja Wimbley and other members of the Speak Up group covered the lunchroom tables with paper tablecloths that featured conversation-starter questions such as “Who are your best friends?” and “Do you ride the bus to school?”

They decorated the cafeteria entryway with balloons, turned the lights down low and played music and anti-bullying videos on a screen along one wall to encourage a festive atmosphere.

“It’s all so people can meet new people and make new friends,” Tyaja said. “Because some people are anti-social or shy, like me.”

A record number of schools — nearly 3,000 nationwide — took part in the Mix It Up at Lunch event this year despite a conservative evangelical group’s push earlier this month for a boycott of the event on the grounds it would “promote the homosexual lifestyle” in public schools.

In an alert to supporters earlier this month, the American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss., urged parents to boycott the event by keeping children home from school Tuesday.

The boycott caused a handful of schools elsewhere to cancel their programs, but Wichita officials said they weren’t aware of any concerns or opposition locally.

At Wilbur, Joey Duncan sat across from two sixth-grade peers he’d never met: Jacob Harmon and Josh Carter.

“I heard it was going to be fun,” Joey said. “This way you get to know more people, not just the same people every day. You make new friends.”

In national and local surveys, students identify school cafeterias as a place where divisions — of race, gender, class and personality type — are most clearly drawn. Even in heavily diverse districts such as Wichita’s, lunch rooms can be highly segregated.

The idea behind “Mix It Up at Lunch Day,” Tabor said, is that even a simple act — switching up tables for lunch — can have profound implications.

“When kids interact with other people who may be different from them, they learn something. … Maybe those social cliques fall away a little bit,” she said.

“It might be just one day, but it’s a start.”

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