A human rights-friendly approach to education

United classmates: Warwick Academy Human Rights Project first anniversary with Alex Mason, Zach Friesen, Théo Wolffe and Corrie Cross (Photograph by Nolwenn Pugi)

Warwick Academy was the first school established in Bermuda, in 1662.

Three hundred years later, it was the first traditionally white school in the country to integrate, almost a decade before the 1971 Bermuda Education Act made it illegal for any school in Bermuda to base admission on race. In 2011, the school achieved another first: the first school in Bermuda to make themselves human rights friendly.

A few years on, students and teachers from Warwick Academy tell their story.

“It all started in 2011” says Françoise Wolffe, human rights co-ordinator at Warwick Academy. One of my colleagues approached me to have Amnesty International as the charity she wanted her students to work with.”

This led the two teachers to organise a variety of human rights activities with a group of 75 12-year-old students, focusing on supporting the Amnesty International Junior Urgent Action Network.

Later that year, when Ms Wolffe became chairwoman for Amnesty International Bermuda, she was introduced to Amnesty International’s Human Rights Friendly Schools project, and she brought it into the academy. Ever since, the changes have been visible throughout the school.

“Human rights became a topic of conversation in the school,” Ms Wolffe said. “Teachers started approaching me to discuss events which they read in the […] news or to share concerns.”

Former student leader Courtney Clay highlights how “school assemblies became the place where we could talk about human rights concerns” while reaching the whole school community.

“We wanted to modernise our institution,” Ms Clay explained, “to raise awareness about human rights” focusing on “discrimination and bullying”.

A Human Rights Temperature Survey led them to start working on their “relationship area” to deal with discrimination.

As Ms Wolffe points out, even though Warwick Academy was the first to integrate, some students of colour still consider that “they don’t belong to our school community”.

Ms Wolffe added: “1971 is recent history — it means that some of our parents went through a segregated educational system.”

Thanks to the project, students became more conscious of the language they used and the discriminatory remarks they made or heard.

These first steps led to major change. The students developed an anti-discrimination policy, a human rights policy for the school and they managed to get an antiquated corporal punishment clause removed from the school handbook.

Most recently, a group developed a proposal for an inclusion project that was implemented in autumn 2018.

An initiative Ms Wolffe highlights is the creation of the Human Rights Student Leader position.

Warwick Academy exchanged a few years ago the classic roles of “head boy/girl” for a variety of leadership roles, including Human Rights Student Leaders.

Senior students apply in written form, are shortlisted and then interviewed by members of the administration.

The initiative allows these students to take on responsibility and act as leaders, while also having the ability of talking to the administration and the teachers about the changes necessary in the school.

As their co-ordinator, Ms Wolffe is most proud of witnessing “the transformative effect our work had on many of our female members, who felt a sense of empowerment by being involved in the project and became natural leaders”.

These leaders attend weekly mentoring sessions to learn how to facilitate human rights discussions and activities for the rest of the students; they learn how to deal with controversial topics, use participatory techniques and encourage freedom of expression within the student body.

Nowadays, the Human Rights-Friendly School Student Group is “a safe space” where students can talk freely about anything, even “topics that may be considered taboo in other school settings”.

Thanks to the group, they know that they aren’t alone in the problems they face, while also acquiring tools to initiate change in their communities.

On December 10, Human Rights Day, the Human Rights-Friendly Schools project celebrated its fifth anniversary in Warwick Academy.

They celebrated with songs, dances, poems that highlighted achievement in human rights and paid tribute to human rights defenders around the world.

The celebration continued throughout the week, with an exhibition of human rights posters, the unveiling of a human rights book section in the school and, finally, a community-wide weekend of human rights-related films.

And what does the school hope to achieve in the next five years? Ms Wolffe highlights reaching “a stage where they [the students] feel safe enough in the space which we created to go beyond their comfort zone”.

She wants the school community to address “the elephant of the room” and discuss topics like discrimination and “the perceived and actual prejudices within the school setting” and the wider “institutional racism throughout Bermuda”.

Next year, they’re also launching a human rights newspaper. Spearheaded by a group of students passionate about journalism, Ms Wolffe hopes it’s an “excellent educational tool teaching students a plethora of invaluable skills”.

The experience of a Human Rights-Friendly School remains with the students even after graduating.

Théo Wolffe points out the experience “shaped and changed not only the way I think but also the way I act in everyday life”.

“Through the activities, seminar and readings promoted by the HRFS initiative, I believe these far-reaching human rights issues are brought to light to young people ultimately looking to make a change” he says.

On her leaving speech upon graduating from school, Brittany Siddle said “taking a stand for those who cannot and raising my voice a little louder for those who are silenced has always been something I do not question myself doing”.

She added: “It is not always an easy battle, however it’s definitely been worth the fight.”

Ms Siddle cheered her fellow students to continue the human rights work: “We simply planted the seed, but now it is up to you to do the rest. Use your voice, empower others and never be afraid to be yourself. […] The adventure continues.”