Visiting speaker preaches diversity, acceptance at Skyline

January 20, 2014

By Neil Pierson

New: Jan. 20. 2:24 p.m.

When he was a ninth-grader, Jamie Utt was subjected to some of the most hurtful insults of his life, but it took the simple actions of one person to reinforce his sense of self-worth.

Utt shared his upbringing – and his message for creating a positive culture – to Skyline High School Jan. 17 as part of the school’s recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

A former teacher who has traveled the nation since 2004 as a professional diversity consultant and trainer, Utt spoke for an hour in front of the entire 2,000-student body at Skyline. He met with a smaller group of students after school, encouraging them to implement specific strategies toward a safer and more inclusive community.

Utt, who also spoke at Liberty High in Issaquah that morning, told the story of how one person – a relative stranger – helped change his life early in high school. Classmates constantly teased Utt about his physical appearance, but one of the school’s most popular girls changed his outlook with a few kind words.

“You’ve got the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen,” the girl told him.

Utt eventually became student body president and captain of his soccer team as a senior. He parlayed that into a successful academic career, earning a bachelor’s degree in peace and global studies, and a master’s degree in teaching.

An important sociological phenomenon toward changing a school’s culture, Utt said, is the idea of “critical mass.” The concept states that once a certain percentage of people support an idea – between 15 and 35 percent – the entire population can be open to it.

Once, while traveling on a bus, Utt encountered a budding domestic violence situation in which a man was verbally abusing a woman, calling her sexist names and accusing her of infidelity.

When the man raised his hand to strike the woman, Utt grabbed him. And when the man turned on Utt, other bus passengers responded and held him back, eventually ejecting him from the bus.

“One person needed to speak up … and the whole bus was on board,” Utt said.

Utt received a warm response throughout his speech, and Skyline students said the assembly had a positive impact.

“I judge people every single day in the hallways – unfortunately, that’s the truth,” said junior Hamilton Wasnick. “… I think this is the first year where I truly realized how I look at people differently, and how I shouldn’t be.”

Wasnick said he hasn’t witnessed much bullying at Skyline, but his sister was alienated at a former school and eventually left because of the abuse. He also indicated that racial prejudice is an underlying issue at Skyline, and that Utt’s message could be a way to address it.

“We do have a large Asian and Indian population, so I think that might be good that we can apply it to them,” he said. “There are people who say mean things to those kids.”

Margaret Gifford, a senior, said gossiping and talking beyond another person’s back is something she often sees around school

“It’s nice when we have these assemblies that remind us how important it is just to take small steps – stand up for someone or compliment them, because those are the things that can mean the most sometimes,” Gifford said.

Freshman Alex Elevathingal said verbal abuse – name-calling and crude insults – are a common occurrence around school. He appreciated Utt’s call to stand up for others.

“The assembly definitely was a game-changer for me because I know it happens a lot in school, but I haven’t done much about it, even though I’ve been told to,” he said.

At the after-school gathering, Utt spoke about specific strategies for improving the culture. Another key concept, he said, is interrupting negative behavior in “measurable and replicable ways.”

An example he shared came from his days as a teacher. When a student used a derogatory word for a person’s sexuality, he asked them to use a different word, then reminded the entire class why the word was offensive.

“It interrupted the behavior, and it was measurable and replicable, so everybody could do it,” Utt said.

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