I fear we forget these words from Maya Angelou all too often. According to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center, an estimated 30 percent of America's youths are a victim of bullying, a bully themselves, or - as is often the case - both. Some 160,000 students reportedly stay home from school each day for fear of the harassment, humiliation and bullying they might face at school - a statistic that does not account for the number of afraid and intimidated students who do come to school.
It is no secret that being in high school is not easy. Whether it is academic or peer pressure, parental expectations, stereotyping, racism, homophobia, isolation, name-calling, rumors or exclusive cliques, students are forced to deal with a wide range of abuses, many of which they are ill-equipped to handle. I often observe that identifiable (and often stereotypical) characteristics are used to set individuals and groups apart, and are frequently the basis of discrimination and bullying. Despicable behavior has become the norm; boys and girls alike flippantly refer to females as "bitches," "whores" and "sluts," and words like "faggot" are thrown around with no awareness of their harmful effect. I regret to admit that I, too, have become desensitized to this derogatory language and blatant disrespect due to its frequent use.
It is not just students who are responsible, either. Teachers can also be main contributors to a negative learning environment by their failure to hold students accountable for inappropriate comments, by using students as the brunt of jokes, or by being complicit in other behaviors that shame students.
I also find there is a general lack of rapport between students on campus. Students pass each other in the halls day after day, unaware of others' problems, and even the commonalities they may share. It is crucial to remember that everyone has their story; everyone has feelings they have been forced to hide for one reason or another.
It is easy to dismiss these problems as issues that afflict all high schools and all students - issues that are part of human nature and cannot be resolved. My own experience as a member of the SRVHS Climate Committee, which provides a forum for students to collaborate with their peers and administrators to brainstorm ways to alleviate bullying and harassment, has been plagued by frustration at this resignation. I, too, am often discouraged; I know that I want the school climate to change, but I am conflicted as to how to institute that change in over 2,000 people. After my three years on the committee, I have come to realize that perhaps the only solution to these problems is to enhance the empathy of all students. The discomfort that comes with the internalization of others' suffering just may be the push that drives students to action. When we step inside the shoes of another and walk around a bit, we are more inclined to listen, understand, and eventually compromise.
Schools across the country have brought about change with a similar theory in mind, through programs like Challenge Day, a program featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show that was designed to break down the barriers between students. The organization claims its aim "is to create a world where every child feels safe, loved and celebrated." The program employs a series of methods to fulfill its mission. During Challenge Day, students are challenged to make themselves vulnerable, open up to their fellow classmates, and reveal thoughts and feelings they have never shared.
One of the most powerful activities, called "Cross the Line," challenges students to step forward if they have experienced anything, from feeling alone at school, to being hit by someone they love. In training to become a Safe School Ambassador (part of a similar program), I participated in this same activity. For each circumstance, more than one person always crossed, and several times, the entire group walked forward. We were often surprised by the commonality of our experiences, and found that those we least expected carry heavy burdens despite their happy appearance. It is through this program, and others like it, that students not only become more empathetic, but also come to realize they are not alone in their woes.
Along with more than 400 schools across the country, the high schools in the SRVUSD have implemented the Safe School Ambassadors program, an organization that was created after the Columbine High School shootings to train students how to prevent and mitigate situations on campus where students are being physically or emotionally bullied, harassed or intimidated.
The place to start is to acknowledge these problems exist. I could talk to a significant portion of students at my school who would disagree that bullying or harassment is a major problem on local campuses. While it is true that most schools in this area are not afflicted by great physical violence, and though most are even fully functional (at least on the surface), the judgment, labeling and social persecution that goes on, occurs at any school, in any town, in any part of the country.
Students need to decide for themselves whether they like the way things are, and how committed they are to change; we must all become more self-aware and empathetic in order to make that change possible. Peaceful coexistence and collaboration are important to not only making school a more comfortable and safe place, but to living and working successfully in our increasingly global world.
The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a senior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.