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Deia Lasu felt the culture shift, a slow slide into divisiveness, racial tension bubbling to the surface, overt, offensive comments in the hallways and classrooms and on social media, a fractured political climate seeping into the walls of her school.

An outspoken Southeast High School senior, Lasu was frustrated and tired last January and — after a morning announcement over the intercom noting the importance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day — she was furious.

Principal Brent Toalson had quoted Coretta Scott King on the importance of her late husband's work and the civil rights movement during morning announcements, including a quote about society one day being colorblind.

That word offended Lasu. She didn’t want society to be colorblind — not the way she interpreted the word. She wanted the world to see her race and her culture, to acknowledge it and accept it.

“The colorblind ideal won’t work for everyone,” she said. “It won’t work for me.”

She wrote her principal a letter and told him what she thought: that she saw being colorblind as a form of privilege, an act of disregarding other races and cultures, not accepting them; that she felt her school was failing students of color, that casual racism was being ignored, that she and other minority students were dismissed as being oversensitive when they challenged it.

She decided a letter was more powerful than an email and she slipped the envelope in Toalson’s office mailbox.

Before long, she got a response: a request that she come to the principal’s office. She thought she might get in trouble.

“As it turns out, I didn’t.”

* * *

Toalson, a Southeast graduate who became the school’s principal in 2012, was an activist in college, giving speeches at sit-ins protesting apartheid in South Africa and supporting LGBT issues.

He wanted to talk with Lasu, to understand more about her experiences, about her interpretation of King's words. He was impressed that she wanted to change things.

He did too, so they kept talking.

They brought other students to the table, held focus groups with students and staff on race and ultimately created a peer mediation group. 

The group is just getting ready to begin helping fellow students resolve disputes and — Toalson hopes — help change the school’s culture.

“I thought peer mediation could empower kids, make the kids who came to me feel like they were part of the solution,” he said.

“What began as a conversation with a couple of students around race ... led to the formation of a group that really has a much broader goal of changing (school) climate by resolving issues that arise, some that may be racial in nature.”

* * *

Tensions reached a boiling point last spring when the student newspaper ran stories about President Trump’s first year in office that included quotes from Southeast students about the immigration debate.

“But if you’re an illegal immigrant, get your citizenship or get out.”

Latino students responded with their own letters in the newspaper and, with Toalson's help, set up a booth in the lunchroom to educate fellow students about Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals, a policy Trump was threatening to eliminate — and that directly affected some Southeast students.

The increasingly divisive political landscape across the country had been making things harder for awhile, though racial incidents had always been a reality for minority students — and not just at Southeast, said Lasu and other students involved in Southeast’s peer mediation group.

In recent years, they'd been called the N-word or “hood rats” or told that Immigration and Customs Enforcement would take them.

Someone posted a sign at the end of the school year wishing students a “happy American summer.” There were offensive photos on social media, overtly racial.

When students said something, said Lasu, they often felt nothing happened or if they responded to a taunt, they were also considered out of line.

“When some type of racial issue happens in class it would always be like ‘oh, they were both equally wrong,'” Lasu said. “But nothing’s equal the way power dynamics work in the classroom.’’

The events unfolding around the country would make their way into classroom discussions — Black Lives Matter, and Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the anthem. Lasu, often the only black student in her Advanced Placement classes — would find herself on one side of the argument, alone.

Students of color often say nothing, Lasu said, because they don’t want to stand out, to cause problems — just like she knows there are white students who support them but are afraid to speak out.

“We have a lot of silent supporters who aren’t really going to sound off,” she said, and she understands that. And teachers, she said, don’t always know how to handle racial incidents when they become aware of them.

She had friends who've transferred from Southeast, she said, and so when Toalson wanted to find solutions, she wanted to be a part of it.

She enlisted friends, and they had two focus groups, one with students and one with students and teachers.

Hearing the teachers’ perspective was important, knowing they didn’t always know how to address issues, said Nevaeh Madlock, who was involved from the beginning.

During the focus group, students of color talked about their world: how they know when they go to a gas station or grocery store to take off their hood, to put their backpack down, to keep their money out so the clerks know they plan to buy something. It surprised their white classmates, Lasu said.

“They were just really surprised by how different our experiences in high school were,” she said. “They’re doing the same kinds of things but they’re living different experiences within this building because of the color of their skin.”

* * *

Toalson had been thinking for some time about incorporating restorative justice practices at Southeast, an approach to discipline based on helping students understand the harm they’ve caused and helping them repair it.

Once he’d begun the conversation with Lasu and others, he thought peer mediation might be a way to start.

Peer mediation has been around for years, but there’s been a resurgence of interest in it as part of restorative justice practices, said Mike Renn, a restorative justice specialist at Lincoln Public Schools.

Toalson shared information about it with Lasu, who liked the idea, and when he ran into Clare Nelson at a school musical, she was eager to help.

A professional mediator at Lincoln’s Mediation Center, Nelson coordinates Project Restore, which uses mediation to help students avoid some criminal charges.

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Nelson met with Lasu, Madlock and a few other students over the summer to plan, and administrators recruited others. Beginning this fall, 15 students met once a week for training, exercises in being empathetic and remaining neutral, asking open-ended questions and helping others resolve conflicts and come to an understanding.

This is new, Nelson said, so they’re figuring things out as they go, but one of the benefits of using students to help mediate conflicts is that they understand their peers and their world in a way adults don’t.

Another benefit: students are learning important skills they can use throughout life, she said.

“I think we have youth that's recognizing that the hostile communication we’re surrounded by isn’t working,” Nelson said. “We’re really training those kids to do the work and sit at the table.”

This is one of the first high schools to attempt peer mediation, Renn said. In many schools, much of his work is with staff, he said, because if the culture of the school isn’t geared toward that philosophy it won’t work.

Sam Province, one of the students in the peer mediation group, said he thinks the mediation process can help reduce racial tension not just at Southeast but at other schools because the issue isn't unique. The Southeast administration's willingness to address the issues was key, he said.

Melissa Ortiz, a co-leader of Southeast’s Latino Club and a member of the peer mediation group, said she feels like things are beginning to change at Southeast already — that the school feels like a safer place. She thinks peer mediation will help even more.

“With what we’re doing now, we’ll send a message to all students that their voice does matter,” she said. “They are validated. They will be heard.”

* * *

In the past decade, Southeast’s demographics have changed significantly: The percent of students of color has nearly doubled, from less than 14 percent to 25 percent; those eligible for the federal free and reduced price lunch program has jumped from 22 percent to nearly 40 percent.

Toalson has spent the past couple of years focusing on equity issues with his staff.

He and staff have tried to reduce racial disparities in school discipline — a problem across the country and at other Lincoln schools. Staff spent much of last year focusing on how poverty affects students and learning, and this year they’re focusing on racial and cultural issues.

“What I like about that is we were really willing to take that on and not just pretend they don’t exist,” he said.

He plans to work with staff on strategies to help them respond to racial issues. Because teachers found the focus groups helpful, several of the peer mediators will hold a panel discussion for more teachers after winter break.

“That’s very, very important, them hearing our stories,” Lasu said.

Toalson’s willingness to listen to students, to involve them in looking for solutions that go beyond punishment is important, she said. 

“Whenever people get into trouble ... it’s like you’re suspended. Free vacation, bye,” Lasu said. “When you say something to someone face to face and have that conversation they’re kind of forced to listen to your side of the story.”

That’s what she hopes will happen with peer mediation and that it will continue work that's already made students feel safer.

She and other students acknowledge it could take awhile, that students might be reluctant to come forward. But Lasu is convinced conversation is the key to change, that peer mediation could help forge compromise.

“I think the problem is lack of understanding for lots of people,” she said. “I feel like once you hit understanding you can see each other on equal standing. On an equal level.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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