Being “different” – with dozens of interpretations of the word – has always been one of the hurdles of adolescence. And it’s no secret that the seeds of intolerance are already growing once students reach high school.
Sadly, high school campuses are also where discrimination, which quickly morphs into hate, has had fatal consequences.
Deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department decided it was time to do something to diffuse the situation and take the lesson right into the schools. Since October 2008, deputies have been visiting high schools and community events on a regular basis, bringing along a custom mobile theater to show a 35-minute docudrama about hate crimes that took place not far from the campuses they visit.
In fact, deputies often meet students who knew the victims or know those left behind.
On Monday morning, students at Golden Valley High School took turns filing into the trailer and watching those crimes play out on film – all of them taken from hate crimes that happened in Los Angeles County, one of them here in the Santa Clarita Valley – as part of the SHARE Tolerance program.
The film isn’t easy to watch. Actual victims are captured at the height of their emotions, their identities painfully clear, one embracing the identity “Mother of a murdered child.”
“We became like them,” she cries. “When I saw him lying on the sidewalk, I would never imagine in my wildest dreams that my children would die the way they did”
The scene breaks sound like gunshots. And the shocks don’t just come from the parents. A gay teen talks about his mother turning her back on him when he shared his sexual orientation. Later, as he lay injured after a severe beating, she was at the forefront of his thoughts.
“This is it,” he thinks aloud as he lay wounded. “My mom has won.”
SHARE – which means Stop Hate And Respect Everyone – provides a sounding board for students dealing with discrimination as well as those unsure, or looking for guidance, in how to deal with difficult situations involving race, culture, religion or sexual orientation.
The SHARE program was conceived and developed by deputy sheriffs who care about the problem and wanted to do something effective about it. After the film, deputies facilitate a 60- to 90-minute discussion about the film, the issues it presents, and the challenges of combatting hate and intolerance.
Deputies aren’t just the peacemakers here. Standing outside the SHARE trailer, student chatter drifts toward bragging about pulling one over on the cops or how they -or more often, a friend or relative once removed – were harassed. It’s clear that cops are often the victims of discrimination as well.
Deputy Greg Chatman, a 20-year veteran of the department, said that the SHARE program offers students a chance to see deputies as more than just badge-carrying authority figures.
“It shows the human side of us,” he said. “We come in without all the bells and whistles, like the radios and taser, for the most part. We share personal stories, they can get to know us and relate.”
Chatman has been coordinating the SHARE program’s appearances for the last four months and said Golden Valley’s students were supportive
“It’s been wonderful,” he said. “We had a couple of kids come up and tell us ‘you guys did a great job, we can use some of the things we talked about.”
Along with asking the classes to critique the program, Chatman said that they have begun to recruit sophomores who have been through the program to help facilitators with the 9th graders.
Chatman, an outgoing, enthusiastic man with an easy smile and strong handshake, seems to have found the perfect fit with the SHARE program.
“I love it,” he said. “The way I look at it, if you love what you do for a living, it is not work.”
“The reason I chose to be a facilitator for the SHARE Tolerance Program, is my life experience enables me to always do the right thing, even when others don’t,” Chatman writes on the program’s website. “I can share with others some of my tribulations and how I didn’t allow them to make me react violently or out of spite. I believe it is imperative for the communities we serve, to see past the uniforms we wear. I want young people especially to see deputies as fellow human beings, who share similar experiences with them. It is my hope that the SHARE program will effect positive change and encourage leadership.”
More than 70 deputies are involved as facilitators in the program, most of them line deputies, but also including sergeants, lieutenants and a deputy chief. Training for facilitators includes a lot of flexibility, Chatman said of the volunteer assignment, because there’s not one specific way to approach these sensitive subjects.
“We’re trained to stay away from some things, we role play and concentrate on not singling kids out,” he said.
Several of the facilitators also share their personal stories both in the classroom and on the program’s website here.
That diversity in facilitators is one of the keys to the program’s success, according to Chatman.
“I wouldn’t say my style is different, but everybody has something they bring to the table. With me, you have to take the mic out of my hand. You can’t give me an audience big enough. I choose to do something and give back – that’s how I was raised, you always got wisdom from older folks. I guess I’m a product of my environment.
“I want to be known in my community,” he continued. “I want people to know me as a law enforcement officer, but more importantly, as one who lives by example, not just by what he says.”
Like many other programs, SHARE Tolerance is dependent on corporate and community support to expand and continue its outreach. An account for donations to SHARE Tolerance has been set up with 501C3 tax status, making such donations tax deductible. Donations can be sent to: Sheriff’s Relief Fund #206, c/o Sheriff’s Relief Association, 11515 S. Colima Rd., Whittier, CA 90604