The 14th annual Diversity Week returns to Hellgate and Big Sky high schools next week, and with discussions ranging from refugees to climate change to ethics in journalism, organizers say the event is more relevant than ever.

The event comes from the Flagship Program, and is designed to promote acceptance, create awareness and encourage critical thinking. They partner with the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, which kicks off this week. Some films are shown in the schools, and students get a chance to talk with directors.

Hellgate's theme is "Overcoming Conflict and Establishing Harmony." Big Sky's is "Diversity MT an Open Mind."

Mayor John Engen will be the keynote speaker at Hellgate, and Big Sky's all-school assembly will include Har Shalom's Laurie Franklin, Big Sky graduate Chris Coburn and current Big Sky student Jessica Beers.

There's a slew of events planned every period Tuesday through Friday (there's no school Monday due to President's Day). They range from a Soft Landing Missoula presentation on refugees to a discussion of media literacy and ethics in journalism led by Joe Eaton, a University of Montana assistant professor in journalism.

"It's a lot trying to steer it away from being too political, which is probably going to be challenging with the climate that we're in," said Nicole Mitchell, program manager of The Flagship Program.

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Diversity Week comes at a time when protests happen nearly daily, there's what feels like constant breaking news coming out of Washington, D.C., and a rise in hateful speech and acts that has at times turned the national spotlight on Montana.

At Tuesday's school board meeting, trustee Grace Decker took a few minutes to remind everyone that Missoula County Public Schools is inclusive.

"We've certainly seen in Helena and in Missoula ... lots of people expressing concern and distress about changes that are potential and some in motion," she said.

She pointed to the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe, which established that undocumented students have the same right to a free public education as any other student.

In addition, MCPS policy lays out its goals for all students, regardless of their background. The policy states that instruction "shall be based upon respect of others" and not encourage bias or discrimination.

"I think they really reflect the best of what our aspirations are for students in the district, and they articulate a stance that is proactive, that seeks to inspire respectful communication, to advocate for free speech as a cornerstone of our citizenship and yet to do so in a way that is based on respectful relationship," Decker said.

Since last fall, 67 refugees have come to Missoula, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Iraq and Eritrea. Their children are enrolled in MCPS.

"We did think of the political climate that we're in, because sometimes you avoid conversations with people about politics because you don't want to have a contentious conversation," Mitchell said. "Kids need to learn skills on how to have a healthy debate. If you have opposing views, you can leave the interaction and still be friends, not have an argument that's filled with hate.

"It's finding common ground that we can agree to disagree and be kind and respectful. Through this whole climate we're in, it's how to have respectful discourse with each other."

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Hellgate's theme, "Overcoming Conflict and Establishing Harmony," came out of Hellgate Flagship coordinator Emily Sandersfeld wanting "an overall message of hope and resiliency."

It came in response to "negativity bombarding the internet and the media," she said in an email.

The theme is explored through examples from the past in films, personal harmony as told by presenters, and establishing harmony with one another through community presentations.

Films being shown at the school include "Roadside Radiation," about the human consequences of the Chernobyl disaster; "Sila and the Gatekeepers of the Arctic," which delves into the impact of global warming on the Inuit; and "Keep Moving Forward," an examination of a veteran's experience with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Presentations from Hellgate grads include Monica Fisher on her battle with cancer, Anna Haslund on being part of the deaf community, and Usifu Bangura on his trip to Sierra Leone to search for his family.

Community groups such as Missoula Rises and the Harry Potter Alliance will discuss unity, support and stopping discrimination.

To see the full schedule of Diversity Week events, go to flagshipprogram.org.

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