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Katie Eggleston, Lynette Figueroa and Jesse Poligardo were engaged in a spirited discussion about their favorite football teams amid the normal hustle and bustle of seventh-grade lunch at Elkridge Landing Middle School on Tuesday.

"I like the Redskins!" Lynette exclaimed.

"The Redskins?" Jesse shrieked. "I like the Steelers."

The conversation quickly turned to dream vacation spots. "Ahs" quickly began to fill the table with the mention of the Bahamas and other exotic locations.

At a glance, you wouldn't know that a few minutes before, the students were virtually strangers. None of the 12-year-olds had ever eaten lunch together. But the group was quickly becoming fast friends. Mission accomplished.

Tuesday, close to 3,000 schools across the country participated in Mix It Up at Lunch Day, a national effort sponsored by Teaching Tolerance, an offshoot of the Southern Poverty Law Center. During the activity, students are encouraged to eat lunch with students outside of their normal social groups. The goal is to break down barriers between students to improve intergroup relations, thwarting misunderstandings that lead to fights, bullying and harassment, according to the event's national literature.

"This is huge," said Principal Gina Stokes. "The whole point in this is to get kids to break out of their normal comfort zone. People gravitate toward people who are just like them. While that is a good thing, it is important for them to break out of those groups."

At Elkridge Landing Middle, in addition to the lunch activity, students participated in two lessons - before and after lunch - that stressed the importance of inclusion and tolerance. Students also learned about the dangers of cliques and bullying.

Names were chosen out of a hat to see whom the sixth-graders would sit with at lunch; the seventh- and eight-graders were assigned their lunch partners.

Elkridge Landing Middle has participated in the activity for the past five years, according to co-organizer Tina Flynn, one of the school's guidance counselors.

"It looked a little confusing, but I think they worked it out," said Flynn. "Some fight it. They like routine. But I think they liked the opportunity. It's a good activity."

The students echoed initial hesitation.

"I was afraid I would get stuck with someone I don't like," Katie said. "But it was good. I liked it because they talk."

Lynette said it is important to meet people outside of the normal social circle.

"You have to get along with people other than your friends," she said.

Jesse was a little apprehensive about being the only boy at his table.

"I think I get along better with boys," he said, laughing, after lunch ended. "But it was OK. I liked it."

"I used to think negative thoughts about some of the people at my table," said Madysen Dacus, a sixth-grader. "But now I see how unique they are."

Tamer Sayyad, 12, is eager to eat lunch again with his newfound friends.

"They are cool people," he said. "I would sit with them again. We're really good friends."

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