Sniffin: How Wyoming schools are stopping bullying, school shootings, and suicide

in Bill Sniffin/Column

MY WYOMING COLUMN

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

Earlier this year in opposite sides of Wyoming, students were overcome with emotion as they explored ways to stop school shootings, prevent bullying, and keep fellow students from committing suicide. 

In Cheyenne, Mountain View, and Lyman, the program called Rachel’s Challenge enjoyed a huge success with students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members. 

I think that the idea of spreading kindness and positivity is just so important.

Jessica Gerwig, a Cheyenne East High School teacher involved in bringing Rachel’s Challenge to the school, told Cowboy State Daily earlier this year.

With school shootings rates and teen suicides rates both rising across the country, the good work being done by Rachel’s Challenge needs to be promoted.  Luckily, schools all over Wyoming are embracing it.

The non-profit Rachel’s Challenge organization claims that its good work prevents more than 100 suicides a year and has prevented seven school shootings in its 20 years of existence. 

Cowboy State Daily’s Robert Geha visited East High School to learn what impact the Rachel’s Challenge program has had on students. Listen for Michelle Puente and Keeley Cleveland’s comments at 2:30 in the segment.

In Cheyenne, East High students Michelle Puente and Keeley Cleveland promoted the program after hearing about it.

“I’ve seen students that typically sit alone at school, now they are sitting with other people. If they were sitting alone, now they have someone to sit with. There are sticky notes on the lockers to show others that it is important to be kind,” Michelle told Cowboy State Daily of the change in student demeanor after the Rachel’s Challenge assembly.

A Wyoming Tribune Eagle article on the assembly reported that East Sophomore Skyler Eidhead, his face blanched and wet with tears after hearing the program said he recently lost some people close to him. Hearing Rachel’s story gave him a sense of hope.

Some 20 years ago, the most publicized school shooting in history occurred at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The first student killed was a 16-year old girl named Rachel Scott.  After her death, her parents found her personal journal predicting her death at a young age and her hope of ways to help people. 

In a school essay titled “My Ethics, My Codes of Life,” Rachel wrote that she wanted to start a chain reaction of kindness.

Six weeks later, she was dead, the first of 13 to be killed during the 1999 Columbine massacre.

For students at Cheyenne’s East High, who have grown up in an era where school shootings are at the forefront of national conversation, Rachel’s Challenge brought an unexpected twist to those discussions.

After Rachel’s death 120 miles south of Cheyenne in Littleton, her parents, Darrell and Sandy Scott, began reading through their daughter’s journals and papers, and found proclamations of kindness and compassion. They were so moved by their daughter’s words they began speaking to community groups and student organizations on behalf of their late daughter, using the words she’d put down in her journals as the crux of their message: kindness.

These speaking occasions grew into what is now called Rachel’s Challenge, a nonprofit organization that seeks to share Rachel’s message of kindness with high school students across the country.

They focus on a few key ideas. They ask students to fight prejudice, to intervene when somebody is being bullied, and to look for the best in others. Though inextricably tied to the Columbine shooting, the presentation hinges less explicitly on school safety and more on kindness and its byproducts – safer schools among them.

“It’s about students’ hearts and getting them to that place where they are connected,” said Nate Rees, regional partnership manager for the group. “A direct result of that is less violence in schools.”

MORE from Cowboy State Daily: Wyoming schools take Rachel’s Challenge: National anti-bullying program comes to state

Rachel’s uncle, Larry Scott, gave the presentation to East High students Tuesday. He is one of dozens of the group’s presenters, but unlike most, his own children were inside Columbine High School at the time of the shooting. They got out unharmed.

In a description of how this worked in Mountain View, the principal of the school, Ben Carr, wrote:  “Rachel had written about her desire to reach out and show kindness to everyone, but especially to three specific groups, including special needs students, students new to the school, and students being picked on and bullied.”

Carr quoted Larry Scott: “He said one particular student who was being bullied reached out to the Scott family to tell them how her kindness and efforts to defend him were directly responsible for saving his life when he decided not to follow through on a plan to kill himself.”

State Supt. of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, is supportive of the program and has been encouraging schools to use it to prevent bullying, school shootings, and suicide.

Coincidentally, the biggest donors to Rachel’s Challenge have been Wyomingites Foster and Lynn Friess of Jackson. They gave $2.5 million to the program as a matching grant so more schools can afford to host this amazing program. 

Students who have attended this program in 30 Wyoming schools so far, say it changed their lives for the better.  It makes sense for all schools to use this program. What a great message!

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find them at www.wyomingwonders.com.

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