Accepting others begins with accepting yourself. That was one of the messages from the inaugural Diversity Day where nearly 650 Orange High School students last week had tough conversations about discrimination, inclusion and unity.

The day consisted of various activities ranging from a keynote speaker to small, student-led group discussions.

Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, a scholar studying equity and diversity in higher education, gave the keynote speech at the Oct. 19 event sharing a message of acceptance and unity.

“We should remember that there is a lot about ourselves that we have to accept. My acceptance of you is partly dependent on my ability to accept myself, flaws and all,” Dr. Strayhorn said. “The takeaway is be yourself, accept yourself, forgive yourself, love yourself, let your light shine.”

Dr. Strayhorn said his research has shown that students perform better academically if they feel safe, secure and protected.

“We found that even for students that have good study skills, go to the library, meet with their faculty and study hard, they might still fail or drop out because they don’t feel that sense of community, connectedness and belonging in school,” he said.

He continued by saying that events such as Diversity Day should equip the Orange community with the skills to disrupt negative conversations and build civility.

Michael Neville, 18, of Moreland Hills is a senior at Orange High School and serves as the student body president. He was instrumental in planning Diversity Day because he wanted to see changes at his school. Michael said that there was a similar event to Diversity Day in middle school, but there was never any follow-up event so it did not have a long-term impact.

“I want them to realize that they can see their similarities through differences,” Michael said. “We need to see how we as a community can come together, unify and get to know each other.”

Jess Boeke and Gary DiBianca, teachers at Orange High School, also helped plan Diversity Day and recruited Michael as the student speaker.

“The students are the ones leading this day. They came up with the activities and questions. They structured this day because they wanted it and are looking for feedback for what to do in the future,” said Mrs. Boeke, 35, of Cleveland Heights. “This won’t be something that happens once, we won’t forget about it.”

Following the keynote speech, students gathered in small groups, where juniors and seniors led discussions.

Two seniors, Halle Morris, 17, of Moreland Hills and Cydney Granger, 17, of Pepper Pike asked the group if they ever helped someone who was feeling stereotyped or misjudged. Some students in the group admitted that although they have seen instances of stereotyping, they did not step in to help. The student leaders asked the group if they felt that the staff at Orange care about them, and there were mixed responses. One student said that teachers care about the kids in their classes but not other Orange students, and another student said that the teens were more engaged with their teachers and their school several years ago than they are now.

High school English teacher Ciara Hauber, 29, of University Heights asked how teachers could better relate to students. Students said they like teachers who can talk about other subjects besides school, and form a friendship with their students.

The small group talked about diversity and what that means for Orange. One student said diversity does not always mean a different appearance. It could mean a different mindset. The students agreed that their school is diverse but they do not learn from their differences.

One student said that she does not enjoy arriving at school, and wanted Orange to have a happier atmosphere. Another member of the group disagreed, saying that he went to two other local school districts and Orange is the most “vibrant.” The group agreed that they have some frustrations with their school, but they appreciate what they have.

Julie Hullett has been a reporter for the Chagrin Valley Times since August of 2018 and covers Gates Mills, Hunting Valley, Moreland Hills, Pepper Pike, Orange and Woodmere. She graduated from John Carroll University with a journalism degree in 2018.

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