Most of the students did not want to raise their hands or worse — stand up and speak.
Some sat on their hands as if to prevent them from betraying themselves. A few gradually raised their hands before yanking them back down again. The cold, hard bleachers in the Tennyson Middle School gym squeaked under the weight of roughly 60 students in that small span of silence.
“No one?” the speaker asked, his eyes sweeping over the students once again.
Finally, a teacher spoke. “I’ll talk,” she said.
Eighth grade teacher Jennifer Adams relayed some of the things students had said to her after watching a presentation about the life of Rachel Joy Scott, the first of 13 victims of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, and the vision Scott had for spreading a “chain reaction of kindness.”
Scott’s vision became a movement after her killing, when her father, Darrell Scott, founded Rachel’s Challenge, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that aims to provide “a sustainable, evidence-based framework for positive climate and culture in” schools to prevent violence and bullying.
Since its inception, more than 25 million people have heard Rachel’s story around the world, at least eight school shootings have been prevented and more than 500 suicides have been averted, according to the Rachel’s Challenge website.
Principal Matt Rambo said the way Rachel’s Challenge explains how bullying can escalate to school shootings was important to him because it strikes at a societal issue that must be fixed. He also praised the program’s focus on kindness and positive interactions among students.
Tennyson Middle School received the training after a teacher, Jeff Platt, wrote a grant to have the program come to Waco, Rambo said. Administrators and teachers nominated about 60 students to participate and serve as ambassadors to the rest of the school.
Adams said one student told her he had already called his mom and told her how much he loves her after watching the video presentation. He told the teacher he wanted to call everyone he loved but did not want his phone to get taken away during class.
Another student told Adams that the message of taking time to be kind to another person really resonated with her, that she wanted to see that message spread into a movement at the school.
That is essentially the message of Rachel’s Challenge: that showing someone kindness can create a chain reaction of compassion.
“You’re all a part of a chain reaction every day,” said Jim Kennedy, a speaker with Rachel’s Challenge. “That’s life.”
Kennedy said about 160,000 students miss school every day because they fear they will be bullied. He asked the students what it really means for someone to be a “bully,” to define that word.
Eager to answer correctly and suddenly less shy, students’ hands shot up. All offered good examples, but Kennedy said a bully is just a label for a type of behavior. He said a bully could be someone going through a tough time or someone who is afraid. He said they could be lonely.
Kennedy also asked the students to raise their hands if they used social media, and almost every student raised his or her hand. He said social media can be really helpful but often creates anxiety for students when problems arise at school and they cannot leave them at school.
Rambo said Kennedy made an excellent point when he emphasized how students today are constantly connected to each other via social media.
“When we were kids, if we had a bad day, it just stayed at school. It really did,” he said. “If we had a conflict with somebody, it stayed at school, and that helped because it helped ease tensions. By the next day, a lot of times the tension was gone.”
Rambo said the Waco Independent School District has strong bullying intervention policies to enact when it does occur, but to be able to do something proactive about violence at school was “a great step.”
Two students at another school that participated in the Rachel’s Challenge program created a positive social media campaign on Instagram, highlighting students’ positive attributes on the widely used platform.
The Tennyson students then broke up into eight smaller groups to brainstorm ideas for the school’s first kindness project, with each group led by a teacher. Kennedy said the intention was to energize students enough so they realize the practice of kindness does not have to stop.
“It really is about changing attitudes,” he said. “If you flood a school with kindness and compassion, it makes the bullying, the disrespect disappear.”
Tennyson Middle School held a community event for family members and friends of students so adults could hear the same message the students had heard Tuesday.
Kennedy said the evening event for adults also is good because it helps explain why some students came home from school Tuesday and gave their parents a kiss or told them they love them for the first time in a long time.
“I was really impressed with the kids,” Rambo said. “The kids really embraced it. We’re reaching them. Even if we can change one kid’s attitude in the way they talk to others, that can be a success.”