SKOWHEGAN — Students at Skowhegan Area High School spent Thursday evening writing messages of inclusion at the school entrances in preparation for Friday’s statewide “Day of Welcome.”

The Day of Welcome, sponsored by the Maine Office of the Attorney General through the Civil Rights Team Project, encourages the school community to discuss issues related to race, skin color, national origin, ancestry, religion, disabilities, gender and sexual orientation.

“Our civil rights team wants to use the Day of Welcome to make a powerful statement about the kind of school community we all want, while introducing ourselves and engaging our peers in understanding our ongoing work,” Mike Jones, one of the civil rights team advisers at the high school, said in an email to the staff.

Skowhegan Area High School student Kate Anderson, 14, right, sews together the many flags representing the LBGTQ Plus communities Thursday with help from Kerry Lovell-Mahan, left, and Parker Travers, 14, center, in preparation for Day of Welcome at Skowhegan Area High School on Friday. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

The Civil Rights Team Project is a school-based program that helps more than 175 student civil rights teams across the state to work with their communities to think about and discuss the six protected categories of people under the Maine Civil Rights Act, according to the event’s press release.

Students in the civil rights club; members of the Gay, Straight, Transgender Alliance; members of the art club and volunteers worked after school to display flags, mark windows and hang banners throughout the school to spark conversations about six biases: race, national origin and ancestry, gender identity, sexuality, disabilities and religion.

“We’re trying to address all areas of bias,” Jones said. “We’re not trying to push an agenda for just one. This event is really a kickoff to let the rest of the school know what our goals are and to give some visuals. Administration is really excited that we’re going big with this so that it can be a big talking point for the rest of the year.”

Skowhegan Area High School student Kate Anderson, 14, holds up flags on Thursday that represent the many different LGBTQ Plus communities in preparation for Day of Welcome at Skowhegan Area High School on Friday. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

While all biases are being addressed in this effort, many students in the civil rights club see one that predominates in their school hallways: transphobia.

Karrie Lovell-Mahan says transphobia has been experienced firsthand, mainly when the use of bathrooms is brought up. Lovell-Mahan, who uses they/them/he/him pronouns, identifies as transgender/nonbinary, pansexual, demisexual and party asexual.

“I care about humans and their rights to be human,” Lovell-Mahan said. “I hope people realize there are people who actually have these (identities) and it is who they are and it’s not uncommon, so we shouldn’t be rude to each other. There’s a lot of bullying against the transgender community here because of the whole bathroom situation.”

“There’s a lot of cis-males who think that transgender guys like myself don’t belong in the male bathroom because we’re not ‘men,'” Lovell-Mahan said.

School administrators suggest talking first about bathroom preferences and will recommend that students use bathrooms in the office as a safety measure, according to Lovell-Mahan.

“There’s been a few people who were tough to get through, but for the most part, the school is actually starting to accept it more than they already do, and there are a lot more people coming out to make it a safer school,” Lovell-Mahan said. “I hope people are understanding what this is for and understanding that the school is very diverse and we should accept everyone, no matter what.”

On Friday morning, students in the club will come to school early to greet classmates as they arrive and to host conversations about the biases that they are addressing.

Alicyn Govoni writes on Thursday some statistics of race and equality on the glass doors at the back entrance of Skowhegan Area High School in preparation for Day of Welcome on Friday. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“I have many friends who are gay and disability-ridden, and I accept everyone, which is why this group is something that I want to be a part of,” Lakarria Stewart, a sophomore at the high school, said. “I support everyone and what they believe in and what they want to believe in.”

Lizzy Steeves, a junior at the high school and a member of the civil rights team, wants to help educate her peers on how to make their school a more welcoming place.

“I want to make our school climate more inclusive, and I do see some problems. I would just say people aren’t as educated on issues, so they’ll use terms that are outdated, and they won’t understand why that’s wrong. So I joined this club, because I would like to help educate them,” Steeves said.

Students who are not members of the clubs at the high school also volunteered their time on Thursday to help spread messages that they believe in.

“There is a lot of discrimination against gender identity and sexuality, especially at our school,” Alivia Rac, a senior at the high school, said. “I feel like we should be able to include all people, and with the events that we see going on today, it’s especially important. There’s a lot of discrimination of certain groups, both in the workplace and as a whole in society. We’re not treating everyone equally.”

Principal Bruce Mochamer said the teaching staff has had civil rights training. He hopes that they encourage discussions about the event in their classrooms, and that the welcome event will set up a school-year-long discussion about inclusion.

“We have our full focus on making this school an environment where all kids feel safe, welcome and respected,” he said. “(Bullying) might happen at other schools, but I don’t care about that. I care about us. This is us. Because we’re in Maine, we are not a diverse community, but it’s important to make sure that anyone that comes through this door is welcome, and that is the hardest thing to do because too easily, kids are picked on because of how they look and dress, and we need to look beyond that.”

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