There’s a room on the Samohi campus, tucked away between the attendance office – where still-sniffling students line up to clear their absences – and the nurse’s office – whose supply of Advil, tampons and condoms is regularly tapped.
This room, about the size of a walk-in closet, virtually radiates vibes of love and acceptance into the cold hallway. Its walls are decorated with photographs of students, a poster depicting celebrities who have stuttering problems entitled “You’re in Good Company,” and a series of friendly, colorful reminders to “Make Eye Contact” and “Say How You Feel.” A sign on the door, in large, rainbow letters, reads Circle of Friends. This is the headquarters of an often overlooked, but vital program at Santa Monica High School, in which mainstream students and students with special needs step far beyond what society expects of them to form long-lasting friendships.
The program, which started seven years ago with 12 members and now numbers over 200, recently began another year of “fostering friendships” and “changing lives.” Its lunch meetings demonstrate both the significance of the program and the maturity of the students involved. The students with and without disabilities met weekly during lunch to sit together in small groups around campus, not sequestered at a ‘special education table,’ but, as Advisor Barbara Palilis explained, “woven into the fabric of the campus.” I decided to visit a few groups during one such lunch, and ask them about the program.
The first group I visited was perched on the stairs of the Greek theater. Seniors Sara Nudelman and Lindsay Avolio were asking Graham Baird, a student with a few learning disabilities, about his weekend. “It’s great to make opportunities for people who couldn’t socialize on their own,” said Nudelman. “It really challenges us to get outside our realm of thinking,” added Avolio.
Sara and Lindsay’s friend Graham, who has been in Circle of Friends for three years, enjoys the program’s many activities. “I love movie day in the summer,” he said. “I love seeing movies with my friends.”
The next group I visited was a one-on-one pair: senior Sharona Daneshrad, president of Circle of Friends, and Luis Aquino, a student with Autism. Luis hunched over his pizza, ripping it into small pieces, while Sharona told him about the program’s upcoming fundraiser at Souplantation. When I asked what he liked best about the program, he eyed me warily and said: “It’s hard to say.” When Sharona asked him the same question however, he opened up. “I like having a lot of friends, nice friends,” he said. His favorite activity to date was last year’s Spring Fling dance.
“He’s a great dancer,” Sharona said. “We have so much fun together. [Circle of Friends] is a happy place.” Palilis later commented that before Circle of Friends, Luis was afraid to attend parties because of the loud noises. “But now he loves to dance!” she laughed.
At the next group I visited, Robin Rosman, who also has Autism, seemed to have trouble focusing on my questions. Her friend, senior Danielle Meyer, Vice President of Public Relations for Circle of Friends, filled me in. “Before Circle of Friends, Robin was really lonely and depressed. Sometimes she wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. But now she can look forward to activities with her friends. If you plan to go to the movies together, she’ll repeat the date and time to you all week long.” Just then, a boy at the table behind us blew up his lunch bag, and popped it, and Robin howled with laughter. “He’s so silly!”
Palilis believes that Circle of Friends is more than fun and friends: “It is a vital part of Special Education. We can teach writing, reading and math in the classroom, but we need this program to teach the necessary life skills and social skills that my students with developmental disabilities require.”
Samohi CEO Dr. Ilene Straus also believes in the importance of Circle of Friends: “It’s an important club with an important mission, and I believe that everyone who knows of it values it – the Administration, the staff, the parents, and most of all, the students. It’s a challenge with a large campus to meet the needs of every club, but I believe we could coordinate our resources to better serve of Circle of Friends.”
Santa Monica High School believes that raising acceptance and awareness of different groups of people is a priority. According to Straus, this movement began over 12 years ago under former principal Dr. Sylvia Rousseau, who believed that tolerance was a vital component of education. There has been a renewed focus on the issue since last April’s allegedly race related fights. “Samohi respects and honors diversity of all types: academic, special needs, ethical, socio-economic, racial and social,” said Straus. “Circle of Friends plays an important role here, because it reinforces an acceptance of diversity.”
In talking with the students participating in Circle of Friends, this culture of acceptance was evident: “It’s good to interact with kids who aren’t like us,” said Senior member Debbie Afar. “It enriches who you are. And it makes people’s day.”
A new plan, developed by Dr. Jeffrey Sprauge, the head of the Special Education Division of the California Department of Education, suggests that California schools implement “Positive Behavioral Supports” for their regular education students. In other words, programs that “promote positive behavioral expectations (e.g., safety, respect, responsibility), teach, practice those rules regularly, and recognize students for following the rules” (calstat.org).
I cannot think of another program that accomplishes the goal more effectively than Circle of Friends, a program that gives developmentally disabled students important lessons in social interaction, and reinforces positive behavior in mainstream students.
“It’s so important for both groups,” said Straus. “It gives the special education students a sense of a peer community and good behavioral modeling, and it gives regular education students lessons in understanding and acceptance. I firmly support it.”And not only do the students participating in Circle of Friends learn safety, respect and responsibility, but the entire school learns by example. “Circle of Friends impacts not only those involved at lunchtime, but other students as well who watch the interaction,” said Palilis. “It’s like a pebble in a pond – it has a rippling effect of understanding and acceptance throughout the campus.”