Twenty-five years ago, students at West Charlotte High School formed the group Students Against Violence Everywhere as a way to cope with the death of classmate Alex Orange, who was shot and killed while trying to break up a fight at an off-campus party.
Since then, the group has grown into a national nonprofit organization with more than 230,000 members in 48 states and seven countries. It spread from high schools to programs for students of all ages, from pre-kindergarten to college.
Over the years, the organization has received recognition from former Gov. Jim Hunt, President George H.W. Bush, the N.C. State Center for the Prevention of School Violence and the U.S. Defense Department, among others.
But today, the student-run chapters have grown from focusing on conflict resolution and peer mediation to a range of teen safety issues such as safe driving and dating violence. Students help plan the topics that chapters cover during the year, and bullying is an area of concern that SAVE hopes to help address in the future.
“Kids are the first line of defense,” said Gary Weart, the original adviser for SAVE and former West Charlotte teacher and coach. “If there’s something going down on campus, they usually know.”
As part of the 25th anniversary this year, the group is campaigning for 25,000 people to donate $1 each to create more violence prevention programs in more than 125 U.S. schools.
Angela Bynum was a senior at West Charlotte when Orange, 17, was killed. They were close friends, and Bynum played an integral role in starting SAVE. Bynum spoke at the recent SAVE Summit in Raleigh, which drew nearly 300 people from at least seven states. Bynum never imagined the organization that started in the school cafeteria would grow so large.
“I never would have thought in 25 years we’d still be remembering Alex. So many before him and after him have been forgotten,” she said of victims of teen violence. “People come to the funeral and memorial services. But in a couple months, no one remembers. I’m always grateful that Alex is remembered.”
Bynum and Alex’s mother, Dawne, remain friends, and both attended the recent summit. Although Bynum prefers to keep the details of their relationship private, she calls Dawne Orange “my hero.”
“She’s taught me we have to become better, not bitter.”
April is a month that should be about proms, spring break, studying for exams and looking forward to graduation. But Bynum and Weart said April makes them apprehensive because so many student-related acts of violence have taken place during the month: the Columbine killings, the Virginia Tech shootings, the recent stabbings of 21 students and a security guard in Pennsylvania, and the fatal stabbing of a Connecticut girl who declined a prom invitation.
“I get really nervous about the month of April,” Weart said. “Kids need a break, they’ve been cooped up inside, there’s pressure (on exam testing), then with prom and the dating scenario? It goes on.”
Bynum said that SAVE may not be exactly the same as when it started, but the organization still uses orange – in memory of Alex – primarily in its colors, and it still is run by students.
“It’s done my heart good that those things that were important to me remain intact,” she said.
SAVE chapters tend to be more common at high schools than in younger grades, said national executive director Carleen Wray. But regardless of the age group, she said, adults need to work to provide students the resources they need to be part of the solution to violence.
Turnover in adult advisers is a frequent challenge that chapters across the country face, Weart said. But SAVE doesn’t have to be limited to schools, just “wherever there (are) kids,” he said, adding that churches, youth organizations and community centers can also get involved.
Over the years, there were more than 80 active SAVE chapters in CMS schools, Wray said. But at the beginning of May, there were only five, officials said.
Keeping chapters active and available to students is part of why fundraising and advisers are so important, Bynum said.
“We have far too many kids either going to jail or going to the hospital,” she said. Or, in the case of Alex Orange, the cemetery.
“It’s not a win-win; two families lose in this,” she said. “One parent has to visit a grave, one parent has to visit a prison. Parents don’t want to go to either of those places. Kids need to think about that.”
The National SAVE fundraiser will run through the end of summer, when the organization will divide the money that’s been donated to fund chapters or renew memberships for those with financial need.