workplaces and in our schools.
Next Thursday, students at Payson High School will talk about what it means to respect others during Days of Respect, a new program designed to combat violence in schools.
Mike Wheelis, director of personnel and student services for the Payson Unified School District, said he's been looking for a proactive program for two years to help the district maintain a peaceful learning environment.
"There was a lot of violence in schools around the country," Wheelis said Wednesday. "I didn't want to redesign the wheel. I found one -- Days of Respect -- built out of the Oakland Men's Project."
Wheelis met with a steering committee a year ago.
"The program had been around for a few years, since the early '90s," Wheelis said. "It had been used in several places around the country, but not in Arizona that I know of."
He said the basis of the program is to get students to talk to other students about what they perceive as disrespectful behavior.
PHS students, teachers, staff and volunteers from the community will gather in the school auditorium at 8:10 a.m.Thursday for a four-hour session that includes a speaker, dramatized examples, group discussions and an open-mike discussion.
The drama department will present six mini-skits on various disrespectful behaviors and Marco Sanchez, a Gilbert School District counselor and former Olympic athlete, will talk about respect.
"After the assembly, we're going to divide students into 40 groups with each group made up of all sectors of the school," Wheelis said.
Each of the groups will conduct three basic activities to get students to talk to other students about what they perceive as disrespectful behavior.
"The point is to heighten the awareness of the students, hopefully to get the behaviors to cease," he said. "If students see their behaviors are hurting people, they'll stop. Sometimes the intent is just to be humorous. I don't think they mean to hurt feelings -- it just happens."
At the end of the half-day session, the groups will reassemble in the auditorium. They'll have an open mike for 45 minutes where they'll discuss what they talked about in the group sessions.
During a meeting for the facilitators Wednesday afternoon, district health specialist Dean Pederson talked about how the ethnic base at the high school is broader than it was 10 years ago.
"We want to reunite the whole campus to make a better school," he told the group.
Several students were chosen to help with Days of Respect because they are considered leaders among their peers.
"Because you were picked as leaders," Pederson said, "we want you to think about real issues you get from the people you hang out with. Because we're dealing with issues, we're dealing with feelings. Any issues dealing with bodily harm or physical or verbal abuse will have to be reported."
"There's no doubt in my mind that we're going to stir some things up," Wheelis said. "There's been a lot of effort from a lot of people. The day is also Safe Schools Day. It coincides with our program by pure luck."
Last year, during Safe Schools Day, students signed banners for the students and families of the victims of the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.
This year, students will spend the day examining their feelings and considering times when they've been hurt by others or they've hurt someone else.
As part of the meeting Wednesday, the facilitators talked about their own experiences. One woman said she had worked as a waitresses and had to deal with disrespectful customers. Another was overweight when she was a child and had been taunted by her classmates. A student had come from another country and had to deal with language issues and cultural barriers.
Pederson talked about the reason the school had included community members in the discussions. He said it was important that the students know that issues of respect are universal.
"Wherever you are, you're all human beings with the same basic needs," he said.
"No one believes we can do this for half a day and everything's wonderful," Wheelis said. "This is the first step, the first piece of a district-wide effort to do these kinds of things.
"There'll be reminders during the rest of the year," he said. "And there's a real possibility that we'll bring the program back next year. This is a district-wide effort to get people to get along with people."