ARMONA — Over 160,000 students skip school every day for fear of being bullied, and Parkview Middle School in Armona is trying to make sure all of its 430 students feel safe coming to school.
In an effort to keep the campus feeling safe, Principal James McDonald brought in Keyona Williams from the Rachel’s Challenge program to talk with the students Monday and discuss the different aspects of bullying.
Rachel’s Challenge exists to equip and inspire students to replace acts of violence, bullying and negativity with acts of respect, kindness and compassion. Rachel’s Challenge is based on the life of Rachel Joy Scott, who was the first victim of the Columbine school shootings in 1999.
According to the Rachel’s Challenge website, after her death, many students shared stories about the profound impact her simple acts of kindness had on their lives; even preventing one young man from taking his own life.
Rachel’s family realized the effect of Rachel’s story and started the nonprofit organization aimed at students of all ages. The Friends of Rachel Club is a group of students at each school who have a goal to make all students feel welcome and included.
McDonald said the school has done Rachel’s Challenge in the past, but wanted to do it again to reinforce the ideals the program is trying to teach and make sure the Friends of Rachel Club really takes off.
“We’re trying to show the students that they can be nice, they can have empathy and understand that other kids are different,” McDonald said.
McDonald said the school has not had to deal with too much physical bullying, but struggle daily with comments or bickering on social media sites.
Williams, who talked about her own struggle with a bully growing up, said the training not only teaches students how to spread compassion and kindness, but also shows them how to keep the good habits up all year.
Williams said the lessons the program is teaching are important for students of any age, but especially for the middle school children because this is the time in their lives where they can start to feel insecure and where self-esteem becomes important.
“Behind all that insecurity is just fear,” Williams explained to the students. “Real fear changes behavior. Very few things are more powerful than the fear of not being loved and accepted.”
She said middle school students also begin to realize they have power and can influence others with their actions. She said it’s the perfect time to teach them to use their power and influence for something positive.
“The world and community need love and kindness,” Williams said. “The small things have a great impact; that is how Rachel lived and we want students to have the power and impact.”
The “challenge” part of Rachel’s Challenge is a schoolwide project that promotes kindness and acceptance. Students brainstormed with each other on Monday, and McDonald said the school will probably do more than one project throughout the school year.
“I think the students want change,” McDonald said. “They want to be able to come to school and feel safe and feel like they can express themselves freely without being judged by others.”
Parkview students broke off into groups and came up with different ways they can make the school a more kind and compassionate place for all students. Ideas ranged from compliment jars to T-shirts with compliments written on them to make the students feel good about themselves.
Williams also gave the students ideas, like greeting students in the morning when they come to school, or sitting with a new student at lunch or giving them a tour of the school to make them feel less lonely.
“It’s time to do something different,” Williams told the students. “You all play an important role in this. Be a part of this, I promise you’ll see a difference in your school.”
McDonald said along with the challenge, the school has implemented “Panther Habits,” which is a program that’s teaching the students about bullying and cyber-bullying. He said he would like to change the culture and the atmosphere of the school, and said staff is committed to providing that change for the students.
“We’re just trying to take things from all different angles to make sure we’re addressing issues and make sure students feel safe on campus,” McDonald said.
At one point, students shared with the group what they had learned and how they would implement their new knowledge in their daily lives from here on out.
McDonald said he was pleased to see students share what they learned and how the program opened their eyes. He said starting the challenge is a step in the right direction for the students.
“They need to feel welcome on school grounds and feel comfortable being here,” McDonald said. “I think Rachel’s Challenge is the perfect presentation to show them that kindness can affect people.”