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Oceanside High School's Human Relations Day opens a dialogue about issues students face

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Vaping, suicide awareness and mental health concerns were among the issues tackled during Human Relations Day at Oceanside High School on March 27, as more than 70 visitors came to the school to speak with students and share their stories.

The event has been a tradition at OHS for more than three decades. It was organized by social studies teachers Laura Trongard and Ken Dwyer, while members of the senior class helped schedule the speakers and guided them around the school.

“They’re amazing,” Trongard said of the students as many of them buzzed about the hallway in between periods. “They’ve been awesome the whole day, they’ve been really wonderful, and the speakers have been commenting how personable they are and how they were so nice to work with, so they did an awesome job.”

The day included visits by elected officials, first responders, notable Oceanside High alumni, veterans, Holocaust survivors, attorneys, activists and others.

The keynote speaker for the event was Steven Pinto, a mental health counselor and expert on adolescence, who offered a presentation encouraging students to think things through and make healthy decisions. He also spoke to parents in the evening about guiding their children during their teenage years. Pinto talked about losing a patient to suicide and the importance of mental health, recognizing signs that someone needs help and the steps they can take to receive treatment.

In addition to Pinto, Dwyer said, some of the most inspirational speakers were students who still attend OHS. “We do have a few presenters who are peer-to-peer,” he said, “and that’s very powerful, too.”

Other notable speakers included Yvonne Dagger and Dagger DogVinci, a renowned canine artist who has painted more than 350 works that have been sold to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and various animal protection groups; Tommy Maher, a retired New York City sanitation worker who drove around the country to honor the victims of the Las Vegas shooting by helping others in their communities; Scott Harris Friedman, a Grammy award-winning producer and songwriter who is an OHS alumnus; Lora Webster, a Paralympics athlete in sitting volleyball; and Anna Levendel, a retired OHS teacher whose family hid in Belgium during the Holocaust.

Levendel told the students that it is difficult for her to share her story. “As I’m getting older, emotionally, it is getting more and more difficult,” she said, “because it’s like reliving a period of your life that you really don’t want to, but you feel it’s important to share these stories.”

Senior Rebecca Schragei said that she and her peers thought the visits from World War II veterans were poignant, and that the speakers who graduated from OHS were impactful.

“It was nice to learn that former students from Oceanside were doing important things, and that we can do that someday,” she said. “Also, people who beat drug addiction and seeing how they came out the other side are super inspirational.”

Senior Kaitlyn Hennig said she was most struck by a seminar entitled “Breaking the Cycle of Violence through Forgiveness,” which was given by a group founded in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. The assembly focused on conflict resolution through forgiveness, and opened a dialogue about bullying and other common high school issues. Hennig said that lectures like that are vital to Human Relations Day.

“It’s an important thing that Oceanside does because it gets students from ninth through 12th grade to be inspired to do community service,” she said, “and to hear other people’s stories and think of things in a different way.”

Trongard said it takes months for her and Dwyer to plan the event each year, and they brainstorm new ideas with students.

To bring levity to close the day of discussions about heavy topics, Gary “The Great” Ferrar put on a magic show in the auditorium.

Dwyer said his favorite part of the day each year is seeing former students who once attended Human Relations Day return to speak — like Jason Steinberg, a former student of his who went on to live and teach abroad and then launched the International Sports and Music Project to support children around the world by improving their lives through sports and music.

“We get positive feedback and, importantly, we have people who say it’s impacted their life,” Dwyer said. “Jason Steinberg said things he heard in this building motivated him to make the choices that he did, and now he’s back in this building as a speaker. That’s really full circle, and that’s something that we hope for. We hope that it stays with students and influences some of the choices they make down the road.”