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By Terry Dean
A conversation between a female student and her school counselor inspired female staff at OPRF to create 800 T-shirts with the word "RESPECT" on them, in response to a recent incident of a male student ranking girls on their looks and purported sexual experience in an inappropriate list.
The staff members, along with a retired school counselor, last week created 800 T-shirts which many adults and students wore last Friday. They were distributed mid-week and sold out by Thursday. The black-colored shirts with white lettering feature a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The word "Respect" is on the front, followed by the quote on the back: "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
Principal Nathaniel Rouse used the quote in his letter to the school following the Jan. 14 incident involving the list. The male student who created the list on Facebook and in printed copies was not allowed back in school after the incident and could face expulsion.
The idea for the shirts came from a conversation between school counselor Heidi Lynch, and one of her students. The girl met with Lynch shortly after the incident and was troubled not only by the list itself, which had derogatory language about the 50 girls listed, but also by the response of some students in support of it.
"She was disturbed that it was other students who participated in distributing it and applauding it," said Lynch, who also taught for 14 years at OPRF.
Lynch spoke with other female staff about doing something visually to empower students against the list to speak out. Lynch sent out an e-mail to faculty to gage their support and got an overwhelming response in favor.
But Lynch says the larger point is that this has sparked a conversation around the school about what is and is not acceptable behavior. Lynch said the female student she spoke with felt like a "lone voice" of opposition, though there were likely more who felt the same.
"There were great kids here who were appalled at this [list] and needed a signal from the adults to be able to speak out," Lynch said. "We thought that we could come up with a visual way to empower kids to say this is wrong; this is not who we are. We are a community that's about respect and tolerance."
Since the shirts have been distributed, Lynch said the female student came to her office last Friday, overwhelmed and pleased by the positive response from students and adults in the building.
Along with the 800 staff and students sporting the shirts on Friday, others were encouraged to wear something black and white in support. Three hundred more shirts have been ordered and are selling this week during lunch period. Lynch said they purchased the shirts from a company for $5 each and sold them for the same amount — the idea, she added, was not to make a profit but to send a message
The original 800 shirts arrived last Wednesday and were distributed to staff, student clubs and school teams. Lynch described the mood around the school last Friday as "visceral," as people proudly wore their shirts but also talked about what the girls on the list, and entire school, has gone through.
"There's a feeling that we're moving forward and talking about who we are at a core level," Lynch said.
The T-shirt campaign has been accepted building wide. Amy Hill, OPRF's director of assessment and research, and one of the staff members Lynch spoke to, said the shirts were meant to accomplish two things — support the girls who were targeted on the list, and "to make a statement about who we believe we are as a school community. This started as a small idea and spread as a school-wide effort by the adults."
Many students also got involved.
The boys' varsity basketball team wore the shirts over their warm-ups during shoot-around before Friday's home game against Downers Grove North. OPRF's drill and cheer squad also sported them during the half time show.
Lynch said other students have been asking about the shirts and how to get them. The list came up briefly at last Thursday's school board meeting during the principal's report. Rouse said teachers spent some time with their students that day talking about respecting each other and would continue those conversations moving forward.
In his recent letter on the school's website, he said the school this week would start mapping out a larger plan to address respect and acceptable-behavior issues in the building.
Rouse wrote: "We have continued to provide what we hope is meaningful support and information to the students and families directly impacted by the list, while honoring privacy. ... In the meantime, we are providing a few quick resources that our counselors and resource managers have found to be helpful in discussing with teens a multitude of issues concerning demeaning, hateful and stereotyping behavior and language of all kinds."