IHHS Students Step Up

bully_laurenBy LAUREN MENNEN

OAKLAND – “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This quote hangs on the walls of Indian Hills High School, and is just what Step Up aims to do. This quote from Maya Angelou is the first inspirational poster of many to come from the students in an anti-bullying educational campaign where promoting a culture of kindness in the school community is the number one priority.

The first poster created by Step Up students/PHOTO Lauren Mennen

The first poster created by Step Up students/PHOTO Lauren Mennen

Step Up is part of an anti-bullying effort launched by students in early October to help students stand against bullying and discrimination in the school community. At a time when bullying is at its prime, Step Up hopes to teach teens to accept each other. Bullying is present in both the classroom and outside of it. Cyberbullying has been an increasing problem with the growth of technology and social networking sites such as Facebook, Formspring, and Twitter.

“They’ve [the students] made a decision to help others and more importantly bring about a change in culture where antagonism and apathy are replaced by consideration and respect,” said Tom Russo, a Physical Education teacher at the high school involved with Step Up.

Over the last few months, bullying has seen a tremendous increase in national media attention. One of most well-known instances of a recent bullying victim is Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student who committed suicide for being harassed for being homosexual. Clementi is originally from Ridgewood, only a few towns away from Oakland, which makes this subject that more pressing.

According to recent bullying statistics from how-to-stop-bullying.com, 160,000 students miss school each day for fear of being bullied. Bullying impacts both students’ emotions and education, and there needs to be more programs like Step Up to bring down that number as much as possible.

The group was created at the beginning of the school year, and had its first meeting at the end of October. There are already 80 members involved who are striving to make a difference.

Indian Hills senior Shane Nebbia initiated the idea of Step Up. She was interested in creating a club that would encourage students to respect each other, so she approached the Principal of the high school, Al Evangelista. She explained to him her concerns about new students, and how she noticed they sometimes eat alone.

“She wanted to find a way to integrate new students. She had the idea to do something that would make people feel a part of the culture of the building,” said Laura Bergrin, the faculty advisor of the club.

The club hopes to eventually, “create a climate in the school building that really emphasizes being nice to each other and being kind to each other, and being competent about how your actions impact other people,” said Bergrin.

At Indian Hills High School, the quote posters are just one example of the many projects underway in the Step Up program. Other projects include ensuring that no student sits alone in the cafeteria at lunch, writing thank you letters to different staff members in the school community, creating a paper chain symbolizing a “chain reaction of kindness,” and making murals to hang around the building. Students are already feeling the impact of these projects although it’s only been a few months.

Step Up is on its way to achieving its goals and has already started to create a more positive climate. New students are interacting with one another that have never been before. More and more students are joining the group and are volunteering to help with projects.

Step Up hopes to create a more caring culture in this high school community/PHOTO Lauren Mennen

Step Up hopes to create a more caring culture in this high school community/PHOTO Lauren Mennen

One of the projects that has seen positive results is the “No Student Eats Alone” program. A high school cafeteria at lunch can be a demonizing time for those who don’t “fit in” or find it hard to make friends.  Some even resort to eating in the bathroom to avoid being seen alone. Step Up organized this new program to ensure that no student is left without a group to eat with in the cafeteria. There have already been positive changes in the cafeteria with this program.

The members of the club worked hard in October to organize this project.  The students involved with the club checked every lunch period to see if there were any students who didn’t have a place to eat or were often eating alone.  They approached those students, and invited them to sit with them. Even if the student didn’t want to sit with a Step Up member, the member would sit with them.

This project didn’t only help students that were alone. It also connected new students with each other.

“In some cases, they helped find students to find other kids in their own grade, and kind of connected them,” said Bergrin. Most of these examples helped freshman find other freshman.

This project is about a month old, and is already very successful. “At the moment, from my understanding is, we do not have kids eating alone in the cafeteria. So for the most part, that’s been effective,” said Bergrin.

Nebbia’s idea for Step Up came about at the same time Bergrin was working on a post-graduate course project for her principal certification involving students and bullying. The project was to look into the school’s policy on bullying and to find out if a problem even existed. She also had to find out what the kids and teachers perceptions on it were.

Linda Bergrin is the faculty advisor of Step Up and also the supervisor of special education at the high school/PHOTO Lauren Mennen

Linda Bergrin is the faculty advisor of Step Up and also the supervisor of special education at the high school/PHOTO Lauren Mennen

But her project only started as that, and turned into something greater. The project, which would eventually become Step Up, “has much less to do with bullying, and a lot more to do with creating a more positive climate in the school building,” Bergrin said.

With these two related interests from Nebbia and Bergrin at convenient times, Principal Evangelista recognized their similar aspirations and matched them together. From then on, the group blossomed.

“Shane’s initiative was to start a club where students who joined would “step up” in instances of observed bullying or harassment and take action.  Ironically, Mrs. Linda Bergrin was working on a similar initiative for certification, and in speaking to her about it, realized that in fact, both she and Shane had the same intent and purpose as it concerned bullying,” said Principal Evangelista.

Once Evangelista matched Nebbia and Bergrin, the two sat down together and decided the best way to approach the bullying problem.

“We talked about a club; we decided that would be a good way to go. She [Nebbia] came up with the name, “Students Step Up,” we went through the approval process: to the principal, superintendent, it actually went to the board, and everyone really liked the idea,” said Bergrin.

And it’s no surprise they liked the idea.

“I personally decided to pursue both Shane’s and Mrs. Bergrin’s issues because I personally believe that there is no greater interruption to the educational process and to young people’s lives than bullying and/or harassment,” said Principal Evangelista.

Bergrin is responsible for helping the students with their chosen activities. She provides them with all of the resources: the money needed to make the projects, the supplies, and the permission to make them. She works as a liaison between the club, administration, and faculty.

Aside from Bergrin, Tom Russo is the only other faculty member involved, and is a major force of the group.

“As the only teacher in the club, I want the students to know that the teachers support them fully. Being in the club enables me to assist the students in any way possible including brain-storming, and spreading the word to faculty and other students,” said Russo.

Although there is no definite president of the club, Bergrin said Nebbia has taken on the role of one.

“She’s very much a leader. She helps to get people organized, she helps to make sure that things are getting done, she takes on a lot of responsibility in terms of structuring the kids,” said Bergrin.

While the club is still relatively new, the students have already made a conscious effort in creating a more positive school community.

The students have started to write “thank you” notes to members of the school community for the work they do each day. This little act of kindness will give the staff the appreciation they deserve, and will allow students to show their gratitude towards them. They will begin to distribute the first set of “thank you” notes in the next weeks. This first round is for the custodians, and the next set will be for the cafeteria workers.

“I’m sure we will get a really positive response. I think these people will be very touched,” said Bergrin.

There are already over 100 letters for the custodians. The notes were made from both students in the club, and also those outside of it, which is a prime example for what Step Up hopes to do: reach to all of the students in the community and promote respectful behavior, making “a chain reaction of kindness,” which is the name of another project in development.

“A Chain Reaction of Kindness” is program that is underway, and it involves building a paper chain with each link representing an act of kindness that one person has done for another. Students will see that other students are participating in acts of kindness, and will hopefully prompt them to do the same.

“What will start to happen is that school recognition will increase as the club displays and announces up-and coming messages and ideas,” said Mr. Russo.

Students are currently working on creating a series of video clips to inform the student body to what the chain reaction project is so they can get others to participate.  Their plan is to create a series of five to ten second video commercials that will be shown during the morning announcements and on the TVs in the cafeteria during lunch time.

This project has also reached students outside of the group. “Yesterday’s meeting we had kids who hadn’t come before because they’re interested in helping with the video,” said Bergrin.

The inspirational quote posters and wall murals are two other projects that are currently being developed. The goal of the posters is to promote, “treating people kindly and creating a positive atmosphere and a culture of caring,” said Bergrin. Bergrin wants to get all of the posters framed and put them throughout the building.

There are also murals hung all around the school already, and Step Up wants to do their own. Students in the AP art classes have chosen to design them.

Step Up was launched with the well-known presentation ‘Rachel’s Challenge’ to the school in late October. This presentation is about the first victim of the Columbine shooting in 1999, Rachel Scott. Scott was about as caring as they come, and after her death, her family found notes she wrote which detailed her plan to make a ‘chain reaction’ for people being kind. Her goal, as stated in her writing, was to find a way to have people treat others with kindness, and for it to spread, similar to the Step Up program “A Chain Reaction of Kindness.”

Her family started ‘Rachel’s Challenge’ after her death, and they have already done thousands of presentations, with over one million audience members. Indian Hills is just one school of many that has been inspired by this 90 minute assembly. For more information about this organization, visit www.rachelschallenge.org.

Students were touched by a presentation of "Rachel's Challenge" in this auditorium/PHOTO Lauren Mennen

Students were touched by a presentation of "Rachel's Challenge" in this auditorium/PHOTO Lauren Mennen

“The assembly was excellent. They really focused on the positive. They don’t dwell on negatives, and they don’t dwell on bad things that happened. They really dwell on positive outcome and how you can take a school building or any institution really, and create a climate and a culture,” said Bergrin.

Tom Russo was also there for the assembly, and found it to be very inspiring to the students.

“I encourage people to look up and read more about ‘Rachel’s Challenge.’ It is an understatement to say that keeping the full attention of a packed HS auditorium for an assembly is tough. For ours during the Rachel’s Challenge assembly, you could hear a pin drop the entire time, the students could not have been more engaged,” said Russo.

Members of Step Up continue to spread their kindness throughout the school community, and will keep working on developing their projects and coming up with new ideas. Hopefully the members of the club will continue to increase.

“I am very impressed by the seriousness which they take their goals. It is student activism at its finest on an important issue that unfortunately, negatively impacts far too many students,” said Russo.