Rachel's Challenge

Mass shootings have been an unfortunately common occurrence in the U.S. for some time now - media outlets report new tragedies on what seems like a weekly basis. But with every new case, many still look to the past for reference, the massacre at Columbine High School being one of the most frequently cited. The insurmountable emotions of these situations can be cause to create more anger, more hatred and more violence; it’s a vicious cycle with seemingly few solutions. But even the people directly affected by these tragedies have the ability to overcome and create an opposite reaction. One spurred on by hope and kindness.

Rachel Joy Scott was the first person killed at Columbine High School in 1999. Following her death, the outpour of love and support that the Scott’s received from Rachel’s classmates and friends was tremendous. The foundation of Rachel’s Challenge was built on her positivity and willingness to be kind – an attitude that has since helped millions of students across the country stand against bullying and violence. Rachel continues to influence even a decade after her death, from Colorado to Pennsylvania, the students and staff at the Mars Area School District have taken up the challenge.

Mars students were given a warm welcome on their first day back, an atmosphere Mars Superintendent Dr. Wesley Shipley wanted to facilitate from the very beginning of the school year.

“This is our biggest kickoff into school climate,” Shipley said. “What I’ve seen so far has just been an incredible outreach from our teachers to really make this a welcoming environment to our kids.”

The idea to implement Rachel’s Challenge at Mars began a year ago, and since then each building in the district has been planning initiatives based on the program. Most of their planning was influenced by the keynote speech given to them by Rachel’s father, Darrel Scott. With a combination of stories about Rachel, as well as things said or written by her, Shipley described the presentation as a very emotionally attached understanding of Mr. Scott’s connection to Rachel’s Challenge, why he developed it and how to use it moving forward.

Mr. Scott outlined these five challenges:

  1. Look for the Best in Others
  2. Dream Big
  3. Choose Positive Influences
  4. Speak with Kindness
  5. Start Your Own Chain Reaction

These are the building blocks for the district as they take on Rachel’s Challenge. Students are already being educated on Rachel’s Challenge, with different programs being presented at the varying grade levels. Parent events will also be held to help spread understanding to the extended community. Without a doubt it’s a challenge, but Shipley and the entire faculty are aiming to improve diversity and understanding within the community to the best of their abilities.

At Mars Area Centennial School, staff and students collectively created the Kindness Hallway as a catalyst for the ‘Start Your Own Chain Reaction’ challenge. Adam Kostewicz, principal at Centennial, elaborated that the purpose of the Kindness Hallway was to create a positive atmosphere as students began their lunch period – possibly the most volatile time during school where language goes unfiltered and bullying is at its peak. As students see or experience acts of kindness, they’re encouraged to make paper chains to decorate the unused lockers leading to the cafeteria. Kostewicz believes the hallway has been effective at building communication skills for his students, sparking ideas among them and getting them to ask important questions.

“It may be simple, it may not be very important, but to hear my students asking those questions is a pretty powerful thing,” Kostewicz says. “Just by writing something positive on a locker.”

Efforts are also being made to educate students on the effects of cyber-bullying. A curriculum called Common Sense Digital Citizenship aims to teach students what cyber-bullying is, and how they can use the internet to be effective learners, rather than using the online landscape as a platform for negativity.

With all of these initiatives in motion, it isn’t uncommon for some cynical knee-jerk reactions. Students may doubt the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs or be reluctant to emote positivity. But in the eyes of the administration at Mars, this is much more than a simple anti-bullying effort.

“It’s not really an anti-bullying program as much as it is a pro-kindness program,” Shipley explained. This is an initiative to get students to be more civil in their interactions with others and create a positive understanding between one another.

“It’s not too difficult if you’re consistent. There’s a need to develop a culture,” Kostewicz said. As these kids are growing, more and more expectations are being put on them. Kostewicz wants the school to be a sanctuary for his students – a place for them to feel protected and supported. There’s a strong belief amongst the staff that the students here have the ability to a positive culture moving forward.

As Rachel Scott wrote in one of her final school papers,

“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.”

This year, the Mars Area School District is putting their all into sparking that chain reaction for the betterment of their community and the future of their students.