Inspired by the story of Rachel Scott — a 17-year-old Colorado student who was killed in the Columbine High School shooting — 150 Frederick County students will fight teasing, bullying and negativity in their schools.
The students, from 10 public and two private high schools in the area, vowed Thursday to take “Rachel’s Challenge” and, through small acts of kindness, create an atmosphere of kindness and compassion inside their schools.
The students from each high school had their own ideas on how to reach that goal.
At Frederick High School, they are hoping to battle separation between student groups by creating a buddy system that pairs students with different interests and backgrounds, senior Kelsi Kennedy said. For example, an athlete would be paired with a student who may not normally play sports or hang out with students who do, Kennedy said.
“Our school is very diverse,” she said. “There is no bullying, but there is still separation.”
Kennedy and about a dozen Frederick High students came up with the idea after participating in the all-day Rachael’s Challenge workshop designed to give students practical tips and ideas for promoting acceptance and addressing bullying and negative attitudes at school.
The nationwide program was developed from the life and writings of Rachel Scott who had been known for accepting others before she was killed at her school on April 20, 1999. Rachel’s father, Darrell Scott, and her stepmother, Sandy, developed the program based on Rachel’s diaries, in which she wrote about the importance of kindness and compassion.
“I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same,” Rachel wrote in her diaries. “People will never know how far a little kindness can go."
When Darrell Scott found how deeply his daughter’s writings had resonated with students, he decided to start a program aimed at inspiring students to promote acceptance. The Rachel’s Challenge program, which seeks to battle teen suicide, school violence and bullying, has taken that message to more than 18 million people across the country.
Thanks to the efforts of the PTA Council of Frederick County, Frederick County Public Schools, United Way of Frederick County, the Mental Health Association, Heartly House, the Frederick County Developmental Center and the Rotary Club, the program made it to Frederick County on Thursday.
As part of the all-day event, selected groups of students representing each of the county’s 10 public high schools, as well as St. John’s Catholic Prep and the New Life Christian Academy, gathered at the International Community Church in Frederick.
They listened to a presentation and took an interactive workshop with Peter DeAnello, a presenter with Rachel’s Challenge. Students participated in skits and practiced ways to avoid confrontation or distract bullies from their targets.
“More than anything, you want them to understand that they have the ability to do something,” DeAnello said after the workshop.
The evening portion of the program was designed for parents, who also received a presentation on Rachel’s Challenge and learned ways to cultivate compassion and kindness among teens.
The PTA council started planning the initiative a year ago, long before an alleged bullying incident at Brunswick High School that was partially caught on camera, brought national and international attention to the county, according to Joy Schaefer, a PTA council representative and newly elected member of the Frederick County Board of Education.
The incident involved sophomore Preston Deener, who had been suspended from school after starting a fight in gym class. Deener told school officials he fought back after being bullied.
On Oct. 8, while Deener was being interviewed about his suspension by a WHAG TV news crew, he was approached by three students, one of whom began pushing him and hitting him on the head, according to a report of the incident filed by WHAG TV reporter Katie Kyros.
Kyros’ camera was off during the attack, but she shot footage of Deener as he ran from one of the boys. Footage of the incident was broadcast on numerous media outlets, including Yahoo News, ABC2, Gawker, Huffington Post and YouTube, causing school system officials to re-examine the way they report bullying incidents.
However, the PTA council had organized Thursday’s event independently as a continuation of past efforts to educate students about bullying, Schaefer said. The council selected Rachel’s Challenge because the program has shown long-term positive effects on students and offered a component designed for parents, she said.
Although county public schools have many programs that teach students how to combat bullying, parents often do not know much about those initiatives, Schaefer said.
One of the goals of the event was to identify student leaders at each county high school who would help spread Rachel’s message throughout their schools, she said.
The students who were selected for the assembly will continue to meet throughout the year and work with school counselors and teachers to come up with projects that can inspire other students to take a stand against bullying, negative attitudes and school violence.
Trequanna Nelson, a senior at Governor Thomas Johnson High School, said she found the workshop inspiring and was eager to pass its message along to other students at her school. Nelson said that the workshop helped her realize that even the smallest gestures, such as giving someone a compliment or asking them about their day, can help a student who may be feeling isolated and lonely.
“I think this will work,” she said. “This is less about the bullying than encouraging kindness.”