Last week brought a sense of déjà vu to this writer.

A little over a year ago, somewhere between 100 and 150 students at Powhatan High School participated in a national school walkout in March 2018 to remember the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and make it known that violence in schools is unacceptable.

The Powhatan Today covered that peaceful protest, which featured students quietly leaving their classrooms, gathering to honor the fellow high schoolers who were killed or injured that day and then returning to class just as peacefully. It was a moving but mostly uneventful showing of solidarity.

But, when posted on Facebook, the reactions it saw were through the roof. Many people were in support. Others accused the students of being brainwashed with propaganda. Some saw it as a personal attack on their gun rights. Some resorted to name-calling. Some flat-out told the young people to sit down and shut up because they were too young to have an opinion of their own.

It was disheartening to watch the madness of the Facebook phenomena unfold, regardless of the long-held realization that many people use social media as a shield to say things they would rarely dare to say to your face.

I mention this, because it seems to have happened again, although not on the newspaper’s Facebook page. A debate sparked on Powhatan Community Forum’s page about a display that went up at Powhatan Middle School for National Pride Month, which falls in June.

The display was instigated and designed by the school’s student multicultural club and approved by school administration, according to Dr. Samantha Martin, principal. The display was the last in a long line of monthly displays the students created to promote inclusiveness in the school.

The display was put up on June 3 at the school but taken down the next day because all bulletin board displays were removed at the end of the year, according to Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent.

Just as with the school walkout, there were a variety of reactions last week to this display. Some were overjoyed about what they saw as a step forward in the local schools toward inclusivity and sending a message of tolerance and love. Others said that topics such as sexuality are something to be discussed at home, not in the schools, and especially not in a middle school because they are too young. Those were the mild responses – even tempered – with reasons being stated and moving on.

Then there was the other end of the spectrum – on both sides of the argument – that got into ugliness and name-calling. Those people could have taken a lesson from some of the middle schoolers who commented on the page – again, on both sides of the argument – about how you can have a free and open debate without resorting to attacking someone.

It is a valid argument that middle school is a big time of change and upheaval for young people and sending a message to some students who may feel isolated that they are not alone is important. Showing support to a minority group does not automatically equate to denigrating or attacking the majority.

At the same time, I get that parents can be overprotective and want to be in charge of how and when their children are exposed to issues about sex and sexuality. I add the disclaimer that a 2D display of a few brightly-colored flags and some historical facts dealing with the fight for equality (not content about sex) probably pales in comparison to the lessons about sex and sexuality that children are learning from other students, social media, books, television shows, movies, advertisements – everyday life really.

It’s the end of the school year. The display is down. Soon the next social media phenomenon will be taking over – actually, it probably already has.

If anything positive can come out of this, I hope it is a continued teaching moment about modeling how to treat others – even those you disagree with – in a respectful manner. Also, don’t discount a young person’s ability to be effective and a positive light to others because of their age.

When I was a preteen, one of my personal heroes was a young person who had a huge impact on this country. A boy named Ryan White was diagnosed at the age of 13 with AIDS, a highly stigmatized disease, which he contracted as a result of contaminated blood he received to treat his hemophilia. My sister, who was not a fan of reading, plowed through a biography about the young man, who had passed away a few years earlier in 1990, and first introduced me to his story. She told me about how he fought for the right to go to school in the face of ignorance and ugliness; raised awareness and education about AIDS; and would have traded all the fame he earned as a result of his fight just to be a normal, healthy kid and not one who was dying.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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