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Backlash ensues after Century High School Unity Day activity backfires

A Unity Day event at Century High School last week meant to tackle and tear down stereotypes ended with some students upset and in tears after the exercise resulted in slurs toward certain racial groups, members of the LGBTQA community and others being written.

As a part of Unity Day on Friday, the Century High School Student Government Association executed a number of events that were "designed to strengthen student understanding of the experiences of others and how diversity of experience can be a unifying force," Century Principal Troy Barnes said in an email sent to parents Monday morning. The activities included both adult and student speakers, he said in the email.

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Another activity — "The Wall" — has caused backlash, prompting the email to parents.

"[The activity] was intended to have students confront stereotypes and false perceptions about various 'identities' or groups and to eradicate them and symbolically destroy them," Barnes said in his email. "This exercise has been successfully used in the past at such events as the [Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership] leadership camps for students and is part of a repertoire of strategies used in diversity training within CCPS and was presented as an activity for inclusion by our student leaders."

Sophie Dommermuth, a junior at Century who is a member of the SGA as an advisory representative but was not involved in the planning of the event, said there were posters with a category hung around the gym, and different groups of peoples stationed at the posters. Students were supposed to write down whatever came to mind, including stereotypes, and then the poster would go to the next group.

At the end, the posters were going to be hung up so the students would tear them down and "tear down the stereotypes," she said, adding that things didn't go exactly as planned.

Dommermuth said that some people were "extremely concerned" over what was written on the boards, and that it was "disheartening" and "painful" to see the students so distraught.

"There were people crying during the activity," she added.

Barnes, in his email, said the intention of the activity was to be positive, but a "large number" of students were "insulted or emotionally upset" by the exercise.

"Clearly, I misjudged the maturity level and readiness of our students to be able to participate in such an exercise," he said.

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Following the activity, some drew the conclusion that the student body is "racist and bigoted," Barnes wrote in his email, but said that part of the exercise was to confront negative stereotypes.

"While, undoubtedly, there may be students who truly harbor such feelings, my experience with this student body and this community as a whole, is the opposite. The vast majority of our students are accepting and have inclusive mindsets that serve to create a positive school culture that does not marginalize any student," Barnes said in his email. "This is something that we emphasize. Even in our disagreements, we encourage students to engage in civil discourse and strive to see another's point of view, based on their experience."

Barnes also clarified it was his decision to allow the exercise. In his email, Barnes also encouraged students who were feeling upset to talk to their counselor or to him to provide feedback. Barnes also apologized to the students and families who felt "upset or unwelcomed" after the activity.

"I also want to reassure all students that we value each of you and what you bring to the CHS 'family,' " he said.

In an interview with the Times, Barnes said they didn't want to upset students or parents, and the students who ran the event did their best to execute the exercise.

"The planning and the execution didn't match," he said. "We were trying to do something positive and it didn't turn out that way."

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