Funding sought to bring play on intolerance to Ellis

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 23, 2000

At the Mower County Fair, a young Hispanic boy was beaten up; his four white companions weren’t.

Wednesday, August 23, 2000

At the Mower County Fair, a young Hispanic boy was beaten up; his four white companions weren’t. At Ellis Middle School, an Asian boy was beaten and then threatened repeatedly. His family finally moved from Austin.

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Problems of racism and intolerant behavior don’t start at puberty, but experts agree that middle school is a time when students start to become more aware of what separates themselves from others.

That’s why parent Jill Vollmer, president of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC), wants to bring the Creative Learning Ideas for Mind and Body – or CLIMB Theater – to Ellis for a week. The Inver Grove Heights-based educational theater group would perform a play for the school called "Just Kidding," which talks about when a putdown is harassment or "just kidding." More importantly, Vollmer thinks, members of the acting troupe would stay a week to do follow-up work with each class on the acceptance of differences. The goal of the workshops is to have students work through replacing exclusion, putdowns and harassment with acceptance and tolerance.

Ellis Principal Jeanne McDermott is a big supporter of the idea.

This year the middle school will have about 1,025 students. Of those, 12 percent, or 115 students, identified themselves during registration as being of a race other than white. Another 186 students, or 18 percent, will be receiving special services of some sort, be it for a physical, mental or emotional handicap. McDermott stressed that there are many programs addressing inclusion in the school already, but admitted that more couldn’t hurt.

"CLIMB would hit the whole gamut," Vollmer said. "Not only the mainstreaming of children with disabilities, but any kind of difference."

The problem is that SEPAC and Vollmer need $4,521 to bring CLIMB to the middle school.

Vollmer already has been to Apex Austin, the volunteer group formed to address potential problems of immigrant transition into Austin, but she was told the group wouldn’t even consider funding the project unless she could come up with half the money.

So she wrote to 14 of the major service clubs in Austin. So far, she’s gotten either denials, no answers and one donation from the Masonic Lodge.

"I’m disappointed," Vollmer said. "It seems like everyone can find money to support and build a new hockey arena, but where is the money to help our children accept differences? These differences aren’t going to go away, so the sooner we start addressing them with our children, the better."

Vollmer isn’t making up the stories about discord among Austin’s youth, although it certainly isn’t a problem with every child.

"It can get very intense," McDermott confirmed. "The majority of the kids get along well, but we have a few who are ready to pick on anyone. It might be buck teeth, skin color or tennis shoes that they focus on. They’re definitely in the minority, but unfortunately, those are the kids you hear about."

When CLIMB, considered the premier instructional theater group in the country, came to Neveln Elementary School two years ago, it received rave reviews from teachers, students and parents. Parenting Resource Center director Maryanne Law also has heard of the group, and, although PRC doesn’t have any funding to put toward the project this year, she thought the play and the follow-up work would be wonderful for that age group – sixth through eighth grade.

Law pointed out that during those preteen years, children are beginning to separate from their parents emotionally and are "desperate for a sense of belonging." Some kids, however, are what Law calls "negative leaders," who promote that sense of belonging to a group by pointing out and picking on someone who’s different. It could be race that separates them, as in the examples at the beginning of the story, physical abilities or disabilities, mental ability or economic class.

Any service group or other organization that would like to find out more about the theater or Vollmer’s proposal, can contact her at 437-7554 or call Austin schools special education director Dennis Thorsen at 433-4422.

"The world is changing," Vollmer said. "We can either start trying to make our kids understand that they have to accept people with differences, or we can watch them fail. This town needs to open up its eyes, stop giving lip service and start doing something about it."