Sergeant brandishes knowledge in war on hatred Stem teaches students about race relations


Rodney Stem, a sergeant at the county Sheriff's Department, packs a pistol but isn't armed until he's got reams of paper and piles of books.

He relies on his backup -- pamphlets on hate crime, brochures on hate groups and literature on what to do about them -- to teach race relations to young students and teen-agers.

While his official duties involve handling the Sheriff Department's civil division, the idea of community policing has him in the schools talking to students about prejudice, respect and tolerance. Last year, he visited five schools. But in the days since the L.A. police trial verdict, he has received phone calls from eight social studies teachers to come into their classrooms.

His approach to discussing prejudice with students depends on the age group. For elementary school children, he brings in simple-to-read and understand books, such as "Overcoming Prejudice and Discrimination," by Joy Berry. For middle-schoolers, he uses sports as a theme so they can relate.

Everybody has prejudices, he tells middle-schoolers. "If you root for a football team, that's prejudice. It's when you act upon your prejudices that it becomes a problem. You have to keep your prejudices at home. You don't bring it to school.

"Prejudice isn't bad," he said. "It's how you use it."

High school students are treated with shock value. He carries a T-shirt with a drawing of Martin Luther King Jr., whose head is the target of a telescopic sight. The message on the T-shirt: "Our Dream Came True."

"It holds their attention," said Stem. "Even the ones who are shy, it gets their attention."

High-schoolers also get a discussion on constitutional rights. He tells them despite free speech, language, clothing or behavior that disrupts the school day is inappropriate.

"If I could do this full time, I would," said Stem, who studied minority affairs in college. "You really can't turn on the TV without anybody talking about race relations. There's a wide emphasis on what's happening."

He was at Glenelg High School on Thursday, talking to a group of 25 black and white students who want to reduce racial tensions and increase tolerance at their school.

Some of the students he talked to were involved in an interracial fight more than two weeks ago, when hundreds of students gathered at a vacant lot to see nine students exchange racial slurs and punches. After the fight, one student was charged with assaulting a teacher who tried to break it up, and two others were charged with possession of weapons after they allegedly brought a hunting knife and brass knuckles to school.

"What's happening in Glenwood, Glenelg -- in all high schools -- it's a microcosm of what's happening in society," Stem said.

"We are getting involved with a school with a problem," he said. "They've acknowledged they have a problem. They're not hiding it. I applaud [Principal] Jim McGregor for his efforts here."

"This school has to deal with a major social issue," said McGregor. "Often times we look to adults to fix things that are wrong. Unfortunately, adults are from another era and sometimes they don't fix it."

Students at McGregor's school initially met with Stem days after the fight to discuss problems. He came back last week to discuss solutions.

The students at the meeting worked on creating a multicultural relations committee to deal with race relations. They expressed optimism about Glenelg's future, talked about nominating students to the committee and hoped to make positive changes. Any tension among students who were involved in the fight was not apparent.

McGregor wants committee members to act as peer advisers to resolve conflicts, similar to a program at Atholton High School, and hopes the group will promote harmony among his students, "and hopefully, we can extend it into the community."

As for Stem -- a former Air Force medic and father of two -- he never thought his background in minority studies and sociology would help him in his job until three years ago, when the state mandated police officers to receive two hours of training in dealing with the racial, religious and ethnic law.

At the encouragement of Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo, a former county police lieutenant, Stem volunteered to serve on the governor's advisory task force as well as the Coalition on Violence and Extremism, a group of law enforcement agencies and community organizations that monitors and deals with hate crime in the state.

He is a member of the Governor's Racial, Religious and Ethnic Intimidation Advisory Committee, and he regularly leads sensitivity training for police cadets and lectures to criminology fTC classes at Howard Community College. Last year, he conducted three summer workshops for school principals to teach them about the state's hate law.

To make his discussions more interesting, he also brings a portable television and a handful of videotapes, among them a brief documentary on hate groups. "All these hate groups have one thing in common -- they hate. And that's what makes them so dangerous," he said.

While some hate-group members proudly wear their sheets or march in the streets, others are more subtle, he said.

"They're the bank vice presidents, the church leaders who do their destructive work in quiet ways. They think they can be more effective by not drawing attention to themselves."

Racism is a problem everywhere, he said. "If I don't reach some kids, at least they're aware of what's going on out there. And maybe next time, when someone else talks to them, it may break them."

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