Students campaign to kick ‘R’ word out of Southampton schools

Published 2:08 pm Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Southampton Key Club developed a campaign to “Kick the ‘R’ word” out of the school district during the week of March 9-13. The service project had two goals: to host a series of week-long events that included the entire student body, and create an awareness campaign that would educate students to the hurtful effects of using words that are insulting to the disabled community, their friends and family.

The campaign began when Southampton’s special education teachers approached the Key Club with the service idea.

“While there are other community service groups within our school, Key Club is the only one without a high-GPA requirement,” said Key Club sponsor and high school English teacher Michelle McHenry. “We include any students who want to serve their school and community, therefore, we felt we were the perfect group to fulfill this service need, which is built on a foundation of inclusiveness.”

The idea expressed by the teachers also happened to align with Governor Terry McAuliffe’s Key Club Outreach to Include Others project, which focuses on connecting with individuals that deal with intellectual and physical disabilities.

When planning for the service project began in October, the Key Club applied for and received a $1,465 grant from the Youth Opportunities Fund through the Kiwanis International Foundation. With the project fully funded, they were able to focus on matters other than financing.

Next, all Key Club members were invited to join one of two committees, event planning or awareness campaign, to strategize. The event planning committee organized the week’s activities, while the awareness committee brainstormed ideas on how to best reach their peers.

As the club members continued to educate themselves on the service project, they discovered that March is National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. Thus, the club decided that the first week of March would be the perfect time to put the plan into action.

Because of inclement weather canceling several days of school that week, however, it was pushed back to March 9-13.

To kick off the week’s festivities, Key Club members teamed up with their Friends to make campaign posters that would be placed around the school. The group created over 50 posters that included phrases such as “Erase the ‘R’ word” and “Say goodbye to the ‘R’ word.”

“We refer to students with intellectual and physical disabilities as our Friends because that’s what they are,” McHenry said. “This was the term that was used throughout the planning and implementation stages of this service project.”

Students visited various classrooms throughout Tuesday to explain the purpose of the week’s activities to those outside of Key Club.

“We explained that even when you are just joking around with friends or even when you are not targeting someone with intellectual disabilities, to use the ‘R’ word is still a hurtful insult,” McHenry said. “It is a form of bullying and it is hate speech.”

McHenry said that she could begin to feel the campaign start to gain traction as the group spoke to their peers. It was during these visits that the Key Club challenged their classmate to take a pledge to not use the ‘R’ word.

“Many students were interested in learning more about our Friends and were amazed by such facts as we have a Special Olympics swimmer that earned three gold medals this past summer right here in our own school.”

With nearly 700 students at Southampton High School, the Key Club set an ambitious goal of 500 pledges.

“We ordered over 500 [‘I took the ‘R’ word pledge’] stickers from the Special Olympics,” McHenry said. “When we ran out, we though we must have misplaced a roll or two.

“When one pledge sheet after another filled with signatures, though, we realized that this was a message clearly communicated and embraced by our peers.”

To this date, the Key Club has received 565 signatures.

The week culminated with a kickball game between the Key Club and their Friends on Friday afternoon. Those students that were not participating cheered on both teams from the sidelines.

“The bonds formed between members and their new Friends were very tangible during this game, all the labels between the two blurred and it really did become just a game between friends,” McHenry said. “We cheered for them, and they cheered for us, too.”

Following the game, the Key Club held an Olympic-style award ceremony, presenting each of their Friends with a gold medal while standing on top of a podium.

“The ‘Kick the ‘R’ word’ service project far exceeded our very ambitious goals and succeeded beyond measure in every possible way,” McHenry said.

In addition to the grant, the Key Club received several unexpected donations to help fund the project.

“As word of the program spread, we were able to save on some expenditures and will be returning a portion of the award to Kiwanis to help fund future Key Club service projects,” McHenry said.

With the success of the project, members of the Key Club are looking forward to planning several more events with their new Friends throughout the year.

“The Key Club determined from the onset that the purpose of the activities for the week was to spark a revolution within our student body to include all students in the planning of activities,” McHenry said.

“They’re seeing the daily effects and rewards this campaign has had on the entire student body.”