Covid-19 has forced a lot of changes in schools this year, but it was not enough to keep students from 44 Broward high schools from attending the annual Broward Students Ethics Forum in November of 2020.
Yes, they did it through Zoom, but 300 students still tuned in, and when it came time to conclude, said Xenia Santiago, the Student Activities Liaison for Broward County Schools, so many of the students didn’t want to leave. “They hung around for 30-40 minutes. They were so enjoying the peer-to-peer interaction and the openness of the forum,” she said.
This would not surprise long-time Rotarian Roy Gonas, a former district governor and current member of the South Miami club, who is fond of saying, “Adults may doubt whether students are capable of addressing ethical issues. They are.”
March is National Ethics Awareness Month, and ethics awareness—especially among youth—is something Roy has been working on for close to two and a half decades.
During Roy’s district governorship, his Rotarians launched an ethics conference in downtown Miami in April of 1999 that attracted 588 students from Miami-Dade and three other counties. The idea, Roy said, was to create a place where the students could lead, to make the ethics conference their own.
The initial conference was such a success that Rotary partnered with Kiwanis to incorporate the Youth Ethics Initiative, which helped support a variety of schools in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Monroe counties who wished to give their students the opportunity to lead on ethics. South Miami Senior High, Coral Gables High School, and Ransom Everglades are just some of many local schools that led ethics initiatives.
It is not unusual for popular programs to fade away in schools, so it is remarkable the Broward Student Ethics Forum, which grew out of the Youth Ethics Initiative Roy spearheaded, is still going strong.
For the Broward Schools student activities liaison, it’s really a no-brainer. “Kids love it,” she said, “and every year their reviews are great.” And keeping with the spirit of the initial ethics conference, the Broward Student Ethics Forum keeps its high school attendees in the driver’s seat.
Santiago said she has the advantage of working with the very strong Broward County Association of Student Councils whose members are officers from their respective schools’ Student Government Associations (SGAs). Those are the students who apply to lead each year’s Ethics Forum. They are the ones who decide whom to invite from their respective schools. They plan the general sessions and the break-out sessions.
Gonas, who besides being a Rotarian and ethics enthusiast is also an attorney/arbitrator with deep ties to the South Florida legal community, points with pride to the titles of some of the break-out sessions at Broward’s 2020 forum: ethics and online school, ethics and the law, ethics and leadership, ethics and relationships, ethics and social media.
“The format is what students design,” he would say. “It is their program, not the adults’.”
Such faith in students’ abilities might come naturally to Roy Gonas. Though a long time Miami-Dade resident, he was born in South Bend, Indiana, where his dad was a nationally and internationally recognized judge in the juvenile justice division. The young men and women who appeared in Judge Gonas’s courtroom had one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country at that time.
Reflecting on the impact of the ethics forums he has inspired over the past 22 years, Roy might be reflecting on his dad’s success as a judge when he says, “When respect is given, it is likely received.”
Shawn DeNight, Ph.D., is an English and journalism teacher at Miami High School. He was the 1995 Florida Teacher of the Year. In 1986 DeNight appeared before an interview committee, led by Roy Gonas, which selected DeNight for a Rotary International Scholarship to Brazil.