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Sixth Graders Grapple with Ethics

Local sixth grade students participate in Safe Community Coalition Ethics Day program.

When Dave O'Hara was in the seventh grade he went to a slumber party at a friend's house. He told his mother where he would be and met up with his friends, only to be told that they had an alternate plan in mind. The parents of another friend were out of town, and the boys had decided to stay at that house instead.

"To me, I had a dilemma," said O'Hara, who is now the assistant principal at Forestville Elementary School in Great Falls. "I had told my mother that I was going to be somewhere else, but my friends were all going to this house where nobody was home ... I made a decision, and the decision I made was to go to this other kid's house and not tell my mom."

It was a decision that O'Hara regretted when he returned home the following day and was confronted by his irate mother. She had called the house where he was supposed to be staying and found out that he had never been there at all.

"But when you're in the midst of a dilemma, sometimes you feel stuck," said O'Hara.

O'Hara shared this personal anecdote with sixth grade students attending last week's third annual Safe Community Coalition (SCC) Sixth Grade Ethics Day program, held at the McLean Community Center. O'Hara and Forestville Elementary School principal Matt Harris worked together to facilitate one of the program's "ethical dilemma" exercise rooms. Divided into small groups, students were presented with various scenarios — all of which depicted difficult moral situations. Students discussed the situations with the other members in their group, as group leaders fueled conversation with thought-provoking questions.

O'Hara and Harris introduced their session by discussing the definition of the word "dilemma."

"Webster's Dictionary defines a dilemma as a situation requiring a choice between two equally undesirable alternatives," said O'Hara.

Harris gave students examples of historical dilemmas through the ages — describing George Washington's struggle over whether or not to support slavery, and a U.S. soldier's dilemma over whether or not to report the abuse of prisoners that took place in Abu Ghraib prison.

Sixth grade students from Forestville Elementary School, Great Falls Elementary School and Timberlane Elementary School all participated in the Safe Community Coalition's annual event. Elementary schools in the Langley High School and McLean High School pyramids can choose whether or not to have sixth graders participate in the Ethics Day program, and other local elementary schools participated this year in a session held two weeks ago. Prior to becoming "Sixth Grade Ethics Day," the Safe Community Coalition had hosted an Ethics Day program for high school seniors. However, the organization changed the format and geared the program toward sixth graders as the result of feedback from parents and students.

"Some people felt that it was too late to try and teach ethics to high school students," said Kim Mackay, a Safe Community Coalition board member who helped organize this year's program. "The idea is to try to get the kids while they are young."

SPONSORED by the Safe Community Coalition and West*Group, this year's program featured several different exercises. In the Alden Theatre, students watched a clip from a film depicting a social experiment designed to teach children about the impact of discrimination. An elementary school teacher informed her class that students with blue eyes were superior to students with brown eyes. She then spent several days favoring her blue-eyed students. By the end of the week, the students with brown eyes were angry, bitter and depressed. After showing students the clip, Ron Axelrod, national director of the Community of Caring and a former teacher at Robinson High School, asked the sixth grade students how the film made them feel.

The students were eager to share their thoughts. Several students said the film showed that it is difficult to understand discrimination without first-hand experience. Many also commented on how discrimination changed the behavior of both sets of students.

"That's right — after being put down for a while, you start to feel that it's true," said Axelrod. "Did you notice how the one girl said that it made her feel like she didn't even want to try anymore?"

Axelrod also pointed out that people can discriminate in both positive and negative ways. Pointing at a student wearing a Stanford University sweatshirt, Axelrod said, "he must be smart because he is wearing a Stanford sweatshirt."

"I made a judgment about him based upon nothing that I could really see," said Axelrod. "Discrimination is when you act on that judgment."

Axelrod told students that "part of being ethical is understanding how other people feel." He also urged them to avoid judging others based on appearances.

"We don't have a choice about the way we look, and the fact of the matter is, everybody is entitled to basic respect," he said.

IN OTHER ROOMS, such as the one facilitated by Forestville Elementary School's principal Matt Harris and assistant principal Dave O'Hara, students discussed fictitious scenarios that presented moral dilemmas. The program also features an ethical dilemma room completely dedicated to the discussion of "cyber ethics."

"We incorporated situations and sites that they are familiar with like Myspace and Facebooks," said Safe Community Coalition board member Diane Pechstein. "The technology is moving so fast, so we had to update."

In one situation, a young student beats a stranger in an online game and is later bullied by the stranger's friends after they find his name and location using the information he provided when he registered to play. In another scenario a girl shares an embarassing picture of a friend by forwarding it via e-mail.

"You have to think before you click," said Mary Tam, a teacher at Timberlane Elementary School who helped facilitate the cyber ethics room. "Think about how the other person might feel."

Tam also urged students to always use good "netiquette."

For this year's program, the Safe Community Coalition made an effort to present students with scenarios that did not provide an easy and immediate solution.

"The kids last year were figuring out their required response, or what they were expected to say," said Safe Community Coalition board member Kim Mackay. "We tried to make them a little more challenging this year."