Reno High School Senior Jill Rovetti sat in the first day of her last high school English class, not believing what she read.
“I’m used to getting a supply list or the curriculum, but to see something like this was never something I expected to get on my first day of school,” said the 17-year-old, who graduates in June.
But there, unlike anything she has ever received in school, was an explanation that filled more than a page from advocates about why using the R-word is wrong.
The word, retarded, is considered hate speech by many advocates of people with disabilities, including the Down Syndrome Network of Northern Nevada and the Special Olympics.
Jill thought about all the times she would say something when she heard the R-word.
She thought about her older brother Jack, who graduated from Reno High last year and has Down syndrome.
For three years, Reno High English teacher Theresa McKillip has spent the first day of class handing out worksheets about words that are sometimes used to describe sexuality, physical and mental illnesses.
“Students say things like that’s so gay or I have OCD,” McKillip said. “I include all those things on the first day.”
The teacher, who has taught for 15 years, said it sets the tone for the year. She uses the same lesson in her senior and freshman English classes.
McKillip said she didn’t know Jill had been affected by the lesson or that it had such an impact on one of her students.
Once in elementary school, Jill remembers students using the word to make fun of her brother.
Jill thought about all the times she didn't correct people who used it. Sometimes she doesn’t say anything.
Recently a friend used the word. When Jill and told her why it was an insult and talked about her brother, the friend quickly apologized and said she didn’t think about it.
The first day of school was a lesson unlike any other.
Jill took out her cell phone and immediately sent a picture of the worksheet to her mother.
“I was so happy that Jill got a good English teacher for her senior year, who will be teaching some real world skills that will make her a better person,” said Diana Rovetti, who has been a long-time advocate for people with disabilities including her own son.
She said the culture at Reno High is to think outside the box, and her son, Jack, had a wonderful experience in high school.
“The students at Reno High always embraced Jack and loved him like a brother, yet, still used the R-word, even in his presence.”
She said it was because they just didn’t know.