Vinemont students hear, accept Rachel’s Challenge

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After the assembly, a banner reading “I Accept Rachel’s Challenge” was signed by Vinemont students who pledged to participate in the program. / W.C. Mann

VINEMONT – Across the United States each day, approximately 160,000 students skip school to avoid being bullied.  Rachel’s Challenge hopes to change not only that number, but the whole culture in which such a number can exist. On Wednesday, students at Vinemont Middle and High Schools accepted that challenge.

So what is Rachel’s Challenge?

  1. Look for the best in others
  2. Dream big
  3. Choose positive influences
  4. Speak with kindness
  5. Start your own chain reaction

The program was created in memory of, and named for, Rachel Joy Scott, the first victim of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting.  The program’s website responds to the above statistic by saying:

“It doesn’t have to be this way.  Creating a school climate less susceptible to harassment, bullying and violence is possible.  We see it happening in socioeconomically and demographically diverse schools across North America every day.

“For us it started when Rachel Joy Scott was the first person killed in the Columbine High School shooting on April 20, 1999.  But that was only the beginning of the story.  After her death, many students that Rachel reached out to shared stories with the Scotts about the profound impact her simple acts of kindness had on their lives; even preventing one young man for taking his own life.  They soon realized the transformational effect of Rachel’s story and started the nonprofit organization that is Rachel's Challenge today.

“In the nineteen years since we lost twelve innocent lives, including Rachel, her legacy has touched 25 million people and is the foundation for creating programs that promote a positive climate in K-12 schools.  Her vision to start a chain reaction of kindness and compassion is the basis for our mission: Making schools safer, more connected places where bullying and violence are replaced with kindness and respect; and where learning and teaching are awakened to their fullest.  And it works!”

Vinemont Middle and High Schools

On Wednesday, Rachel’s Challenge came to Vinemont Middle and High Schools.  Vinemont teacher Mandy Redding said, “This was very life-changing in some of our other schools.  I know Fairview did it a few years ago.  So this is something we’ve been wanting to do for a few years; it’s just now been able to get going.”

The program arrived in a very personal way, as Rachel Scott’s own uncle, Larry Scott, came to address a joint assembly and issue the challenge.  Scott told the students and faculty members about how Rachel lived and died, and shared with them the stories of other kids who were touched by Rachel’s kindness.  His slideshow included pages from Rachel’s personal journal.

One-on-one with Larry Scott

After the assembly, while scores of students took their turns pledging to participate in the program by signing their names to a Rachel’s Challenge banner, Scott spoke to The Tribune:

What advice would you give to a bully?

“To a bully I would say, ‘Quit bullying, and begin to focus your energy on being nice and kind to one another.’  You know, it takes a lot of energy to be a bully.  It takes more muscles to frown that it does to smile.  So it’s kind of that principle of use your energy to do positive things instead of negative things, and your life will be better, and it’ll make everybody else’s life better around you.

“And so, all I can ever say to a bully is why–I’d like to first of all ask them, ‘Why are you being a bully?’  Because there’s a lot of things inside a person that causes them to be a bully.  Bullies are afraid, too.  Bullies usually feel lonely.  The two boys that did the killings at Columbine, they literally separated themselves from everybody else, made themselves loners, and got in their own little world, thinking they were the only ones right, and got into a whole mindset of ‘We’re going to do damage to people who are not like us.’  That’s what Hitler did, basically.  It’s very insecure people who are bullies, usually, and that’s just a known fact.

“And it’s important for people to reach out to people who nobody else reaches out to.  You never know how far a little kindness will go, like Rachel said, whenever you reach out to people that nobody else is reaching out to.  You just may prevent a school shooting by simply reaching out to that person.  

“They feel alone, they feel isolated.  And isolation is never a good thing for somebody.  So I would ask a bully that: ‘Hey, how many friends do you have?  Who are you hanging around with?  What influences are in your life?  Is everything going okay at home?’  Usually the home is where things start, whether we believe that or not–everything starts in the home.

“And that’s why we speak to the parents at night, is to encourage parents to, you know, hear the story, get Rachel’s story just like their kids heard today–and at 6:30 tonight we’ll be sharing her story–and let the parents be on the same page as their kids.  That’s important.”

What would you tell the kid who’s being bullied?

“Well, I’d say to the kid being bullied, go tell an adult.  If it’s truly a bullying situation, go get an adult to help you.  You can’t handle it on your own.  Don’t try to handle the situation by yourself.  And also to not bully back.  At least be friendly and kind as you can, even though that’s a tough thing to do sometimes.  

“But I would say get help and don’t let it get to you as a person.  Don’t take it personally, because usually the bully has more problems, and that’s what’s causing them to become a bully, and realize that maybe they’re dealing with something that you don’t even know about in their life.

“And Rachel talked about that.  She said, you know, look in people’s eyes, and see their heart.  And when you begin to do that, it even lets a bully think about ‘Why am I doing this?’  You know, “Why am I being mean to someone that’s being nice to me?’

“Rachel reached out to a girl named Valerie five times.  And Valerie was a bully, and mean to her all five times . . . (Valerie) got in a fight, she got in drugs; she was a mean girl at Columbine, and Rachel reached out to her.  And Valerie said, ‘Five times I was mean to her, but Rachel was nice to me every time, and it made a difference in my life.’  And she said, ‘Meeting Rachel and knowing Rachel made you want to become a better person.’  It made her realize–made Valerie realize–that there are good people out there.

“And so, that’s what I would say to a person, is don’t be mean back.  Always be nice.  You may be the one that influences that bully to not be a bully anymore, by being kind, by even just being nice to them, being friendly to them.  It might make a difference.  You never know how far a little kindness can go.”

Shortly after the assembly, Scott met with 100 students and teachers from the middle and high schools to begin training them to form a “Friends of Rachel” Club (or FOR Club) at Vinemont, which will recruit other students and promote the challenges and principles set forth in Rachel’s Challenge.

Each year, more than 1.5 million people take part in Rachel’s Challenge programs, including more than 1,200 schools and businesses.  The program claims a success rate that includes the prevention of more than 150 suicides annually, along with decreases in bullying and increases in acts of kindness and service in the communities it serves.  An independent nationwide survey indicated a 282 percent increase in the number of students who felt safe at school after the implementation of Rachel’s Challenge.

Leading up to the event, the administrations of Vinemont Middle and High School issued the following statement:

“Here at Vinemont Middle/High School we value our community and seek to reestablish it as a priority for our students and ‘for our students.’  All the people in this community deserve students that show empathy and love for one another.  We want to use Rachel's Challenge to energize and excite our young people to show kindness and be a light in any dark place they encounter.  We want our students to lift up others and be a lighthouse for the lost.  Rachel Joy Scott was murdered in cold blood at Columbine High School because of her Christian beliefs.  We want to challenge our students to believe in something bigger than themselves.  Rachel's Challenge is a program, unlike any other character education program.  Rachel's challenge is meant to change our school and our community.  We hope to see the effects of this program for many years to come.”

Rachel Scott’s last school essay included these words: “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.  People will never know how far a little kindness can go.”

Referring to that quote, Redding said, “So, that’s kind of what we’re wanting to happen in our schools.”

For more information on Rachel’s Challenge, visit http://rachelschallenge.org.

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