Organizers of a program whose goal is to teach civic responsibility and combat a "no snitching" culture point to several events this summer they say have provided tragic but teachable moments.
• Two Tampa police officers are shot and the suspect gets help eluding law enforcement.
• A civilian police employee is accused of hiding information that could have helped with the manhunt.
• Three neighborhood women instinctively try to help the shot officers and proceed to summon aid.
"It's prime teachable material,'' said Carolyn Bass, executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum, which organized the Speak Up, Speak Now! program for middle school students.
The eight-week summer project was conceived by museum volunteer Tracey Locke, who wanted the museum to take its message of tolerance, respect for human life and obligation to others into the community.
"It just seemed important to me that we do more to talk about bystander behavior and how it relates to violence in the community and also bullying in the schools,'' Locke said.
She became convinced that such action was imperative after the death of Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, the 8-year-old St. Petersburg girl killed in a drive-by shooting in April 2009.
Bass, the museum's director, said the program echoes the mission of the Holocaust Museum, which honors the millions of men, women and children killed during the Holocaust and the people who risked their lives to help.
"We're about the Holocaust but are a springboard for other things. This not snitching is a universal thing. We are trying to teach the kids to figure out a way that it's safe to tell,'' Bass said.
"The Holocaust was a really prime example of the world standing by, whether it was people in the local community or whether it was the larger community or the world standing by. The thing with Paris and the thing with these police officers in Tampa is that if people had stood up, these lives would have been saved.''
Tuesday morning, about 60 students from the Frank Pierce Recreation Center gathered at the museum to hear Holocaust survivor Jerry Rawicki, 83, talk about his experience as a Polish Jew and tell the story of the Catholic teenager who saved his life.
"He was one of those upstanders,'' he said of Janusz Rybakiewicz, who is among the more than 22,000 non-Jews honored in Yad Vashem in Israel for risking his life to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.
"People like Jerry put a real face on what can happen when people don't recognize the worth of their neighbors," Bass said.
During this summer's program, which ends Friday, students from four St. Petersburg centers — Frank Pierce, Lake Vista Recreation Center, the Royal Theater Boys and Girls Club and the TASCO Center for Teen Technology at Crescent Lake — also heard from those who lost family members to more recent violence.
On Friday students listened to Paris Whitehead-Hamilton's aunt, Shenita Williams, as she spoke in front of their home and displayed artwork from last year's program. "Make right choices, you guys. Speak out,'' she told the students, who plied her with questions about the tragedy and the effect it has had on her and her family.
Participants in this summer's program also heard from Lisa Wheeler-Brown, whose son Cabretti Wheeler was murdered (along with his friend Kyle Ellis) in 2008.
This year the program — originally called the Paris Project — is also addressing bullying. Debbie Johnston, whose 15-year-old son Jeffrey committed suicide in 2005 due to bullying, was one of the speakers. Last year Gov. Charlie Crist signed the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act in her son's honor, which mandated that districts overhaul their antibullying policies.
Decari Turner, 14, who will be an eighth-grader at Bay Point Middle School, said he plans to use what he has learned this summer.
"If I see somebody bullying, I will go over and try to stop it or tell the teacher,'' he said. "I don't want to be the cause of somebody's death.''
Kinnan Johnston — no relation to Debbie and Jeffrey Johnston — supervises the program's teachers. A civics teacher at John Hopkins Middle School, she worked with Locke, Lealman Elementary School art teacher Tricia Kennedy and members of the Florida Holocaust Museum's advisory board and the Facing History and Ourselves organization to create the Speak Up, Speak Now! curriculum.
The project relies on volunteers, private donations and grants. Coordinated Childcare of Pinellas County is a major donor this summer. The Rays Foundation contributed $5,000, while the city of St. Petersburg, Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association and Green Florida are also among the project's supporters.
Next year's sessions are already being planned.
"Realistically, we'll stay in Pinellas County and we're absolutely going to move into Hillsborough County,'' Bass said. "In the wake of the Dontae Morris violence, we are definitely needed.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.