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DeKalb middle schoolers vow to abolish 'r-word'

DeKALB – The doctors told Marielle Ostling's parents that giving birth to her twin brother would be a big mistake.

Ostling's brother was born with cognitive and physical disabilities, and from day one, he's been a huge part of her life, she said. She loves him, and she's saddened that the challenges he faces aren't limited to his medical disabilities.

"I can remember in high school, I found some students who were picking on my brother and calling him and his friends 'retards,' " Ostling said.

Now a student-teacher at Clinton Rosette Middle School, Ostling joined other teachers and faculty members Tuesday in a schoolwide effort to stop people from using the word "retarded" – and all of its variations – in a derogatory manner.

During their 20-minute advisory period, students listened to presentations and watched videos about the "r-word." In many of the videos, people talked about how hurt they felt when they overheard somebody use the word as a substitute for worthless, stupid, or ridiculous.

Several materials came from Spread the Word to End the Word – a nationwide movement to get people to stop using the word in that way.

During their lunch hours, students signed a massive banner, indicating their pledge to not use the word in a derogatory way.

Special-education teacher Holly Wesson described Tuesday as their way to help eliminate the word. Like other teachers, she said she often hears the word used by students as a way to say: "Oh, you did something silly, or you're acting silly."

"But it's hurtful to people like me," Wesson told Ostling's class of seventh-graders.

Nearly all of the students in Ostling's advisory period said they had heard others use the word, but only a small minority of them said they told someone to stop. That's the real goal of the day, Wesson said.

But she realizes it won't be easy, stating that the word is used regularly by people to describe something they don't like. On Monday, Wesson had a physical reaction to a character on a reality TV show using the r-word in a derogatory manner.

"If people know, people won't use it," Wesson said. "A lot of people don't think twice about using it."

Eighth-grader Thomas Wuchte and his friends said they have been called the word by others. The group stormed the banner after lunch Tuesday and signed it.

"Don't say it yourself because your friends might follow you if you do," Wuchte said.

Another eighth-grader, Ben Stark, can sympathize with Ostling. His cousin has a developmental disability that prevents him from responding quickly to others. He said both himself and his cousin have been called names by others.

"It didn't offend me at first, but it also offended me because of my cousin," Stark said.

Nyari Turner and Kathryn Lamb, both eighth-graders, felt the pledge was a good first step in ending the derogatory use of the word.

"I think it's better than people saying it and ignoring what it means," Lamb said.

On the Web

To find out more about the pledge CRMS students have taken, visit the Spread the Word to End the Word's website at

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