Ashley Silvernail is Norm.
“Many students get bullied because of their culture, color, gender, being gay or lesbian and so on,” Silvernail said. “I believe that we are unique in our own way. No one is the same. I am spreading the message at my school, to show people that everyone is Norm, meaning different. And that’s why I have joined I Am Norm.”
Carla Aquino and Sahithi Seethao are Norm, too.
“I get really shy, because I think no one wants to talk to me,” said Aquino, who hails from China. “But here, you feel special. People are more fair and friendly, not like others that judge you on your appearance.”
Seethao, a native of India, agreed.
“This is my first year in the United States, so I don’t really have any friends. I don’t really talk to others,” she said. “When I come to the I Am Norm meetings, I have a lot of friends. I can interact with them. I like it because of that. I attend every meeting.”
I Am Norm is an extracurricular group at Liverpool High School that aims to promote inclusion and end bullying by bringing together kids of all different backgrounds.
“A lot of people come to these meetings, different people, and we talk about what we can do,” said member Lauren Bowers. “Those different people do talk to each other and have the same ideas. It helps people realize that we’re all the same, but we’re all different, too.”
I Am Norm started in January of 2010 when 20 youths, both with and without disabilities, met up in Washington, D.C. for a weekend. After working together and learning about their differences, the kids designed a campaign to effect change in the way youths are treated and the way they see each other: the I Am Norm campaign.
“Through this campaign, we hope to raise awareness about inclusion, provide opportunities for youth to share their ideas about inclusion and promote inclusive practices in schools and communities,” said I Am Norm’s website. “We want to encourage the acceptance, respect, and authentic inclusion of all youth, including those with disabilities, in schools and communities.”
The group came to LHS with the help of Tom Bull, a former special education teacher in the district who is now a professor at Syracuse University. Bull reached out to LHS’s special education department about launching a program in the spring of 2012. It’s led by special education teacher John Sheridan, with help from music teacher Chris Spring and numerous others.
“To me, there is something so simple about feeling comfortable in where you go to school and having a place to belong. We’re hoping this message becomes part of the culture,” Spring said. “The message is so simple. It stays with people even when they leave the building.”
I Am Norm meets regularly, at least once a month, to discuss ideas about inclusion and tolerance. They hold events throughout the year, including game days during Academic Advisement, an upcoming karaoke night and presentations, both at LHS and throughout the district, to educate students about their message. They also painted a mural made up of puzzle pieces outlining the characteristics that make them “Norm.” The mural, which is in the entrance hallway of the school, provides a lasting message, Spring said, of Norm’s ideals.
“People see it in the hallway every morning when they walk by,” she said. “It’s not just a piece of paper. It’s a lasting legacy.”
And the mural has room to grow so that more students can contribute.
“We plan to fill in the puzzle pieces as more people join and our seniors are replaced by the younger grades,” Sheridan said.
More than 100 kids cycle in and out of the meetings; the group offers open enrollment, so any student can attend any meeting.
“When they join, they’re asked to write down three things that make them Norm — [things like] I am creative, I am a good friend, I am Norm,” Sheridan said. The goal is to make people aware that they’re more alike than they are different. “You don’t have to be your label. You don’t have to be who everyone thinks you are. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Bull stressed how damaging labels can be to kids, even “positive” labels like “football star.” He pointed to Reed Derrenbacher, a Westhill senior and quarterback who recently took his own life.
“We knowingly and unknowingly put kids on a pedestal,” Bull said. He noted that doing so puts tremendous pressure on students. “At their heart, schools should be a place where everyone feels welcome and valued. We’re all different.”
For Sheridan, I Am Norm offers an opportunity to continue to reach out to disenfranchised and isolated students.
“For me in high school, I was the jock, and I saw people getting picked on by my teammates, and I felt like that wasn’t right,” he said. “I didn’t see myself as different from anyone else, so I would reach out to those kids in high school. I saw them as valuable. So this program is a perfect fit for me.”
The program is a perfect fit for anyone, Bull said, pointing to the wide variety of students who participate.
“We’ve done a good job of getting a real cross section of kids involved, from the kid in the 12-to-1-to-1 or the 15-to-1, to the kid that’s… involved in student government and everything else, to the kid that’s the captain of the wrestling team to the kid that’s homeschooled,” he said. “It’s a real cross section.”
Bowers said she joined after learning about the group at a school pep rally.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I wonder what that’s about,’ so I checked it out. I asked people and found out it was about inclusion, and we need that,” she said. “There are separate groups — ‘jocks’ and ‘nerds,’ stuff like that. I think if you got a ‘jock’ and a ‘nerd’ in the same room [they could learn they have the] same interests and they could become friends. I think everyone should at least give everyone a chance, not judge them on their appearance or their label. People shouldn’t have labels. They should be known by their personality and what they do, not what they look like.”
Senior Michaela Barratta said I Am Norm offers a safe space for those students who might feel they don’t have anywhere else to go.
“Our whole campaign is inclusion, so if someone doesn’t do any sports or anything, if they don’t have a group, they can come and be part of our group. I think that’s really great,” she said. “When I was little, I was kind of excluded by my friends, and I think that, especially transitioning into high school, it’s important to know that you can fit in with a group of people.”
But Aquino said she doesn’t think it’s about fitting in.
“You don’t really have to fit in. You can just be yourself,” she said. “I don’t care if you don’t like me because I don’t fit in. But I’m trying to make my own thing. I want to be a good role model to others. Just be yourself. Don’t try to fit in. Just because they’re awesome, that doesn’t mean you can’t be awesome, too.”
That’s the goal of I Am Norm — to change the culture so that kids understand that they’re fine the way they are, regardless of their labels, hobbies or friend groups. Spring said she has already seen its impact.
“Kids get a chance to say, ‘This made a difference to me,’” she said. “That mean’s we’ve already made a difference.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.