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De La Salle’s social justice initiative attracts the attention of U.S. Attorney

27th January 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Fritz Esker
Contributing Writer

In an effort to encourage social consciousness in its students, De La Salle High School is spearheading a social justice initiative for its students.

Michael Guillot, president of De La Salle High School, said plans for the initiative began last year when the administration decided to look at ways it could better prepare the students for being future leaders in the community. Consultations with both faculty and students led to the One Book for Justice proposal.

After deciding to go ahead with One Book for Justice, the school had to choose a theme for the book. The school chose reducing violence as the theme, then decided on Tattoos on the Heart by Fr. Greg Boyle as its book. The book is a collection of vignettes from Fr. Boyle’s work with street gangs in Los Angeles.

“It doesn’t just deal with the symptoms of violence in the community, but also its causes and its remedies,” Guillot said.

Guillot also praised the book’s realism. Some of the youths portrayed in the book succeed in overcoming their obstacles, others do not. Its viewpoint is hopeful without ignoring the harsh realities of life. This helps students realize that while they should strive to end violence in the community, it is not a problem with a simple or easy solution.

“They’ve taken away a deep appreciation of the complexity of the issue of the violence in the community,” Guillot said.

The initiative has included classroom discussions of the book, as well as individual presentations students have to make on specific chapters. Students and teachers produced a multimedia theatrical presentation on the issue that they presented at a conference at Christian Brothers schools. There is also an anti-violence rally planned for April 12 at Notre Dame Seminary at 4:30 p.m.

To help encourage the students in their social justice project, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, a De La Salle graduate and the school’s first African-American valedictorian, spoke with student leaders on Martin Luther King Day.

“It is important for students to discuss issues of violence in their community because violence is a social ill that plagues us all,” Polite said. “It is not limited to certain neighborhoods or parishes, and the lack of safety amongst any of our citizenry affects us all.”

Polite further emphasized that it’s important to educate young people on the root causes of violence like poverty, poor mental health and the lack of education. He is particularly passionate about education. On this point, he cited a statistic that said if the high school graduation rate increases by merely five percent, it will result in a savings of hundreds of millions of dollars in criminal justice costs and a several million dollar increase in earned wages, as well as a significant reduction in crime.

“Education is a key component of reducing crime, and fortunately our young people have the ability to be a part of implementing that solution,” Polite said. “We have been reaching out to students across Southeast Louisiana to share the message that they can be part of the solution to any number of problems in their communities, particularly violent crime.”

The program has had positive effects on De La Salle students. Christiana Ellard said that it has made her more aware of the importance of youth programs to keep kids out of trouble and engaged in constructive activities. It has also made her more aware of the larger world outside of her comfort zone.

“It really makes one think and reflect upon the injustices occurring not only in our city, but in our world,” Ellard said. “I know as a high school junior, it is easy to be swept up in….things and become naive to what is happening in the world around us. Going through this really helped me to realize that these injustices are real, and aren’t just stories you hear about in the news.”

Guillot said it’s unknown at this time whether or not the school will address reducing violence with its One Book for Justice project next year, or if they’ll choose another topic. But even if another topic is chosen for the 2014-15 school year, they plan to continue the momentum from this year’s project.

“The whole initiative is definitely not over,” Ellard said. “We as a school are constantly working and striving to find other ways that we can make an impact in our home city of New Orleans.”

This article originally published in the January 27, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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