SOUTH FORSYTH — Middle school can be rough.
Looking back, many people recount those early teenage years as the most trying times in school.
When groups of kids are dealing with their changing selves while being surrounded by others who are changing at an equally as unstable rate, bullying, intolerance and stereotypes can form.
But Riverwatch Middle School has no place for such hate.
The No Place for Hate initiative is organized by the Anti-Defamation League to rally an entire school around the goal of creating a welcoming environment for every person.
Riverwatch is the first Forsyth County school to earn the designation, one of more than 150 that did so this year in the organization’s southeast region.
Kathy Carpenter, the school’s principal, said kids are looking to make generalizations in middle school about people they encounter, and these generalizations carry through to high school and adulthood.
“We have a leadership team [of students] to work to promote tolerance,” Carpenter said. “Because our school is growing in diversity, we want to be proactive with acceptance.”
She said the school has done anti-bullying programs before, but the No Place for Hate goal works to combat the underlying prejudices that may lead to bullying.
“I like that it’s preventing bullying and that we don’t have to be judged on our skin color or what we look like on the outside, but that it’s what’s on the inside that we should look at,” said Cole Zaleski, a seventh-grader in the initiative at Riverwatch.
“We’re continuing to grow at such a rapid rate. This county isn’t the same it was 10 years ago,” School Superintendent Jeff Bearden said at the unveiling of a banner to signify the designation Wednesday.
“It’s our job to create a safe, welcoming learning environment for every child. If they feel safe, they’ll achieve at a higher level.”
Riverwatch’s efforts mirror the district’s goal to strive for tolerance, said Bearden, who began his educational career as a middle school teacher.
A coalition of six student leaders from each grade helped spread the word last year during several schoolwide initiatives and events, said Dawn Densmore, a school counselor at Riverwatch.
Densmore said she helped pioneer the initiative to enhance “our mission and philosophy that we’re a community of tolerance and acceptance.”
Last year, the group kicked off an awareness program by playing Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” throughout the halls and unveiling one letter at a time of “No Place for Hate.” Densmore said they asked every student and parent to sign a resolution for respect, one of the three steps in earning the certification.
Forming a student committee to oversee activities was another requirement.
Shari Endo, also a school counselor, moved from Riverwatch to Lambert High School this year, taking the six student leaders who graduated eighth grade with her to help spread the initiative at the next level.
Tori Perez, a seventh-grader at Riverwatch, said the program can teach kids that others can be different than what they may think from a stereotype.
Eighth-grader Maggie Walker agreed.
“I don’t like to see people get their feelings hurt,” she said, “so I like to help out.”