Somersworth schools teach inclusion
Dana Hilliard, the openly gay mayor of Somersworth, is also a career educator with strong views on the role education plays in breaking down barriers and creating an inclusive society.
He practices what he preaches at the Somersworth Middle School, where he's been principal for seven years. It's an unusual dual role Hilliard, 46, plays in the community — being mayor and a school principal — but legal questions about wearing both hats were resolved years ago. The double role gives him unique perspectives and the power to help build the kind of community he envisions.
"The key to creating a community where everyone can be celebrated and protected is education, period," Hilliard said.
Hilliard believes intolerance is taught.
"You are not born with hate," Hilliard said. "You put a bunch of little kids together, they don’t care what color you are. They don’t care what religion you are. They don’t care if you have two mommies or two daddies. Those are learned values. You learn how to hate. So as people are learning how to hate, then really, it’s the education system that has to deprogram them.
"And some people dig in and say that is not the role of a school. I say the hell it isn’t. That’s the fundamental role of a school ... to teach those values which define this country. And those values are embracing each other and celebrating each other," Hilliard said.
Hilliard believes public schools are on the front lines of that battle. "Every person in society that has a prejudice — that was taught to them. In one way or another that was taught and embedded in them. You’re not born anti-Semitic. You’re not born homophobic. You’re not born a sexist. You are taught those values the same way you were taught math. You learn it the exact same way you learn algebra. And if you’re really good at it, you’ve excelled because you have been taught it really well," Hilliard said.
To combat those learned behaviors, Hilliard runs his school with strict protocols. The tone is set and the seeds are planted from the start at the school, which educates Somersworth students in grades 5-8.
"These are words that we live by," said Hilliard, who is widely known as a no-nonsense principal. "The school itself is a community and within this community we celebrate each other and we protect each other and we don’t allow attacks upon each other; and that this is a place where everyone can be themselves, and explore who that self is; and, that we are here to help nurture that and grow that.
"And if someone is attacking you for you being yourself then you come to us. And you have a whole entire building that will defend you from the first day of school in," Hilliard said.
What that has led to is an environment in which kids are able to grow into adults safely — to be themselves and to be kids, Hilliard said.
Hilliard is serious about his convictions and sticks to them as a city leader and educator. He remembers a conversation he had with state Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, in which Watters praised Hilliard for sticking to his game plan. Hilliard quotes Watters telling him: "I’ve known you for five years and heard you speak for five years. We are both politicians, but I have come to realize that your message never changes. You actually believe in everything that you are saying. Not all politicians are like that."
"Yeah I do Dave, it’s authentic," Hilliard said.
Sean Peschel, 39, is Hilliard's life partner and husband. He is also a career educator in another local school district. Peschel once worked with Hilliard and knows well his protocols. He agrees that Hilliard's system works. Middle school, Peschel said, is usually the worst time of a kid's life, because children are going through so many changes at that point in their development and they are trying to discover who they are. If you don't preach respect at school and enforce it, children are deprived of exploring who they are.
"It’s when they comfortably explore and find out who they are and express who they are — and no matter if it’s like NASCAR or languages or being gay or being straight or being whatever — they are able to do it in a comfortable environment, a safe environment where many middle schools aren’t like that," Peschel said.
To find out more about Hilliard's educational program, Foster's went right to the source, interviewing 20 Somersworth Middle School students along with teacher Jacqueline Hanlon to ask them directly about those lessons of tolerance. When asked whether they believe Somersworth is welcoming to diversity and the LGBTQ community, the 20 students shouted out a unanimous "yes!"
A student named Saleah expanded on the resounding yes. "Like it doesn't matter if you're gay, lesbian, bisexual, or like if you like to dress up like a girl or dress up like a boy," she said. "We welcome you."
We also asked why Somersworth Middle School feels so safe when students at a lot of other middle schools get beaten up and bullied for being who they are. A student named Sierra had the answer: "You shouldn't really have that problem when you're here," adding that she would stand up for anyone who was being picked on either at school or downtown.
Some students said they'd seen firsthand the damage bullying does to kids. A student named Patrick said he knows about the mix of physical, emotional and verbal abuse kids dish out to other kids. "I know a person that likes the same gender and goes to a school in Rochester and she gets bullied a lot for liking the same gender — verbally and emotionally — and it takes a huge toll on her as a person," he said.
When the students were asked if they knew their principal is gay, we got another shout from the 20 students, "Yes!"
Sierra said, "There's no judgment. It's excellent because he's (Hilliard) standing out (because) he's also the mayor of Somersworth. He's standing out and saying, 'Hey, I'm being who I am ...'"
Patrick said, "I don't mind our principal being gay. Him being gay shows that someone who could be judged so harshly by society can play a huge role in development."
A student named Keegan said Hilliard's sexual orientation was not a big deal. "I feel like I don't really notice that he's gay. He's just like my principal and I don't judge him in any way. I feel like he could do the same job as anyone else if he was straight or whatever, I wouldn't think of him any different. I don't really think about that as a part of who he is."
Hanlon, whose class was studying the Holocaust, said the lessons about tolerance go on every day in school whether it's part of the curriculum or every Friday when all 400 students head to the gymnasium to discuss special topics like bullying or just to celebrate each other.
"What are we?" Hanlon asks the 20 students.
"We are reasonable," they say in unison.
"We ask you to be four things. What are they?" Hanlon asks them.
"Safe, respectful, responsible and cooperative," they shout.
That's what we're teaching at Somersworth Middle School — we're teaching students to be good people, Hanlon said.
Hanlon knows there are people out there who would prefer she was teaching the students capitalization on this day, rather than having a conversation about acceptance. But she thinks the conversation is far more important.
"You will teach them how to be a community," she said.