After violence broke out on the Riverhead High School campus in 2003 and gang activity from surrounding areas began infiltrating the school, the Riverhead School District responded by adopting Council for Unity, a program that promotes conflict resolution, self-respect and works to involve kids in positive activities in efforts to prevent them from becoming involved in gangs.
Modeled after the National Council for Unity, which was founded in 1975 amid race riots in Brooklyn by former high school teacher Bob DeSena, the Riverhead CFU chapter began with 27 students representing a cross section of the student body—kids in conflict, students representing diversity issues, students representing disciplinary and academic problems and students in leadership positions.
Since its inception, the RHS CFU was an effort to create a “positive gang” among students with its members working together to promote tolerance and unity and to create a peaceful and productive learning environment for all students. The program has now become a role model for groups looking to bring Council for Unity to their communities.
Students involved in the Riverhead CFU meet after school for 45 minutes every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and follow a curriculum that promotes listening and respect for one another’s point of view. The group’s discussions include what makes gangs attractive to people, how peer pressure works within the context of a group and how high school kids are impacted by peer pressure.
Riverhead’s CFU members also study lessons from history and bring representatives from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds together in efforts to confront racism, bigotry, and violence. Members are also actively involved in mediation.
“It works, said Theresa Drozd, the school’s K-12 Violence and Drug Prevention Specialist. “Just a couple of months into the school year, there was an incident in gym class where a Hispanic student felt slighted. It caused some tension. We brought the parties together with the council and they helped talk it out and settle the dispute. Just recently, two of the council members, who were butting heads last year in the cafeteria, met together to talk about council with an interested adult, and they were there together as friends.”
The Riverhead CFU also hosts “Mix It Up” days during the high school’s lunch hours. Council members place a colored mark on each student’s hand as they enter the cafeteria. The lunch tables are coded with colored balloons, and students are invited to join the table that matches the color on their hand. A CFU member hosts a discussion at each table while a DJ provides music for conversation and dancing.
The group also addresses contemporary issues outside of the high school. As racial tensions regarding police practices, gun laws and vigilantism continue over the Feb. 26 shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African American, Drozd recently confirmed that CFU members have been hosting discussions in their classes about the case.
Riverhead’s association with the Council for Unity that began as a chapter in the Riverhead High School has evolved to become a comprehensive community model.
The Riverhead CFU has broadened its scope to the entire Riverhead School system, including formal classes at the high school and clubs at the Pulaski Street School and the Riverhead Middle School. In addition, a parent support group now meets at the Riverhead Free Library.
Community organizations that are involved include: the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, the Riverhead Police Department, the Suffolk County Correctional Facility, various religious and ethnic organizations and local businesses.
The RHS council has also hosted other schools from all over New York interested in organizing councils in their schools.
For more information, contact:
Council for Unity
Lisa Wright, Director of Programs, Council for Unity, 50
Broadway, Suite 1503, New York, New York 10004,
The Riverhead Model
Theresa Drozd, MSW
K-12 Violence Prevention Coordinator
E. S. BOCES/Riverhead School District
700 Harrison Avenue
Riverhead, New York 11901
631/369-6724 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
SOURCES: Riverhead.net, Riverhead Patch, councilforunity.org