BELMONT An unkind crack made in a school hallway. Students spouting nasty gossip at a cafeteria table. A negative comment about a classmate flung into cyberspace.
However its practiced, bullying is an issue all over the country. Recently, Gaston County Schools began an anti-bullying campaign that focuses not only on 31,000 students in 55 schools, but the community as well.
The nationally recognized program Rachels Challenge was developed around the writings and life of Rachel Scott, the first victim in the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. Her father and stepmother felt her example would resonate with students everywhere after the tragedy in which 13 were killed and the shooters committed suicide.
In 2010, l.8 million people were involved in the program at 1,900 schools in 48 states and three other countries. According to the Littleton, Colo.-based nonprofit, more than 200 suicides and other violent acts were averted in schools nationwide and schools reported up to 90 percent reductions in disciplinary referrals and out-of-school suspensions.
Rachels Challenge CEO Rob Unger said Gaston County is the first on the East Coast to offer the program districtwide and were looking forward to the results.
For two years, Gaston County school officials considered bringing Rachels Challenge to the system, but didnt have the money. Now its being made possible through a $57,500 grant from United Way of Gaston County. The money goes for videos, speakers and training. Presentations are age-appropriate and the Columbine story is not included at the elementary school level.
Melissa Balknight, assistant superintendent for student support services, said the school system has focused on bullying for years and has been able to decrease incidents. Rachels Challenge is another tool for dealing with the problem.
The feedback were getting about it is great, she said. From schools, parents, students every day I get positive affirmation. The momentum continues to grow.
The effectiveness of the program will be monitored by surveys and evaluations, Balknight said.
In addition to staff training, the program furnishes professional speakers during programs at school assemblies and community events. Also, Rachels Challenge focuses on partnerships with faith-based and civic organizations to educate families and residents about the role of community support networks for victims of bullying.
The goal is to change the culture of the community, said Shelley Collins, guidance counselor at South Point High in Belmont. Its about kindness and looking out for each other.
Earlier this school year, a Rachels Challenge expert spoke to South Points 1,300 students in an assembly Collins described as dynamic.
They were all engaged, she said. The way the speaker was able to tie the story together was phenomenal. There was a lot of buy-in among the students.
At South Point, Collins said bullying is more of a social media issue outside school.
The traditional way of making fun of somebody face to face has given way to put-downs on Facebook and Twitter, Collins said.
Collins hopes the new campaign will help students understand how hurtful that can be. And she also thinks the program can help them become better connected to new students who feel isolated. Though she feels the school does a good job of welcoming, theres always room for improvement. Rachels Challenge provides the inspiration for students, teachers and staff, she said.
South Point draws students from Belmont, Cramerton, McAdenville and parts of Mount Holly and Gastonia. Many have grown up together or known each other for years.
The influx of new students is steady. South Point has 100 new students this year with more coming in every week, Collins said.
Often ignored by others, they tend not to do as well academically, she said.
South Point students admit newcomers havent always been welcomed. And theyve seen others whove been excluded because they werent wearing Ralph Lauren or some other trendy brand of clothing.
Students dont always see their comments on social media as cyberbullying just random comments on everything from a football team to somebodys car.
But the messages are often sarcastic.
For some, its not cool to be kind, said senior L.J. Mendoza, 17.
He was among the South Point students who recently heard a Rachels Challenge anti-bullying program. Talk about doing good deeds and avoiding prejudice and bullying was basic stuff, he said, but it was presented powerfully.
I give it a 10, Mendoza said. It was awesome.
Afterward, students were fired up, reaching out to people who need help, said Katie Nencetti, 16.
Under the new focus, everybodys included, said Hannah Phillips, 16.
Derek Perry, 16, put it this way: Its all about family making people feel welcome. Some have struggled to come to school.
Students say the anti-bullying campaign has opened their eyes and challenged them to look for the best in people.
Chain of Kindness
Keeping that spirit alive will be another challenge, they said. Students at South Point and other schools have formed faculty-sponsored Friends of Rachels Challenge Clubs to build on the momentum.
Theyll do such things as welcome newcomers at football games and other events, and sit with them in the lunchroom.
Students are making a Chain of Kindness out of paper scraps with good deeds written on them; the goal is a chain big enough to wrap around the entire school.
T-shirts and posters bearing positive messages are in the works along with a Fist-Bump Friday event to help people break the ice and connect.
And theyre just getting started, the students say; theyll come up with other ways to promote kindness, not only inside the school, but at home and in the community.
As they work to make permanent changes, Mendoza said theyll deliver a simple message: Kindness is cool.
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