In 2003, a writer with Palmer High School's student newspaper explained the need for a new school club. Within her argument was this quote: "A Gay-Straight Alliance will help establish an atmosphere of tolerance, which is consistent with [the state of Colorado's] legislatively mandated anti-bullying programs."
In the next two years, School District 11 officials responded by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in a legal fight to keep a GSA (and other student clubs) out.
Eventually, those officials would lose their battle. Palmer's GSA would grow into a vibrant club, at times attracting even more than the 20 students who comprise it today. And this past June, the school board would revise its anti-discrimination policy to explicitly cover "transgender status, gender identity and gender expression."
Anton Schulzki, a Palmer teacher and the GSA sponsor, has seen it all develop, and he's willing to give administrators and colleagues some credit. "I think we're doing a better job of recognizing it's up to teachers in the classroom to say, 'Hey, that's not appropriate.' Those are the kind of things that go a long way."
But Schulzki knows that even with policies new and old in place, bullying — whether based on sexual orientation, race or other characteristics — will continue to hold challenges for school officials.
The issue has blown up in recent years, with suicides of bullied students setting off nationwide media frenzies. Administrators and teachers can't control what happens outside of class hours, where social-media sites like Facebook provide a virtually limitless forum for antagonizing people. Even if they gain insight to the situation, says Schulzki, "Not all students are willing to name names for fear of retribution, and that's a hard thing to deal with."
Some students may come from home environments where older family members continue to reinforce stereotypes or disdain for others. And then, of course, there's peer pressure.
But peer pressure can actually be used for good, too. You don't hear about it as much, but students can be positive role models for each other. And there are a number of groups focusing on making that happen in the Pikes Peak region.
What if, as a high school freshman, you had an older student who was willing to get up early to help you finish that English paper you were struggling with? Someone who wasn't your parent, or your teacher, but who cared regardless?
Emma Brachtenbach, and the other Peer Mentors at Manitou Springs High School, aim to do just that. They try to make the world of a new school feel less imposing, and more of a home.
"Being able to support someone so they can advocate for themselves and are empowered to do that is a fabulous stepping stone away from acts of violence and bullying," Brachtenbach says. Knowing that there's a helping hand, or reassuring face in the hallway, "combats any negative attacks ... in the future."
Brachtenbach, a senior, notes that in her own freshman year, older girls on her soccer team always helped her out when she needed it. Peer Mentors target incoming freshmen and new students who may not have that kind of built-in support network, making sure they always have an upperclassman to go to with questions or concerns.
Manitou is clearly fortunate to have students like Brachtenbach, who shows a level of awareness atypical for an 18-year-old. But other students scattered around the region think this way too, and are looking out for their peers under the auspices of Kidpower of Colorado.
Run by executive director Jan Isaacs Henry, Kidpower of Colorado is the local branch of a national nonprofit that promotes personal safety and violence prevention for children and teens. "We teach kids skills so that they can have skills of their own to deal with bullying kinds of situations," says Henry. Since 1994, Kidpower has both hosted workshops and help programs in schools to help combat multiple types of abusive situations.
A unique facet of Kidpower is its Teen Advisory Board, which Brachtenbach joined after meeting Henry in eighth grade. The board, now in its 12th year, currently includes 16 high school teens from 11 local high schools. ("Because we're a youth-serving organization, it just makes sense to get feedback from our client," says Henry.)
The Board created a video last year, now available on YouTube, about bullying prevention. Inspired by members talking about their own personal experiences with bullying, it's attracted more than 5,500 views to date.
Safe and smart
A handful of other local organizations target bullying by bringing their programs to local schools. Among them are TESSA, which focuses on domestic and sexual assault prevention, and Inside Out Youth Services, which offers support groups and discussions for LGBTQ youth.
Meanwhile, Guy Bennett runs a program called Safe Teen through the Suicide Prevention Partnership of the Pikes Peak Region. Safe Teen, which started in 2002, focuses on identifying signs that someone may be contemplating suicide, and risk factors, then suggests "things [students] can do to help their friends," says Bennett. Via school assemblies and smaller class discussions with more interactive activities, the program has reached more than 12,000 students.
There's also Rachel's Challenge. The Colorado-based organization is inspired by Rachel Scott, 17, who was the first person killed in the Columbine High School massacre in April 1999. Shortly before her death, Rachel wrote, "I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction ..."
"Start a chain reaction" is the Rachel's Challenge catchphrase. "We get categorized as anti-bullying, but we call ourselves more pro-kindness," says representative Karissa McCoy.
The organization holds school assemblies, but also provides students with assorted resources to create their own clubs on campus promoting a "culture of kindness and compassion." It is now not only nationwide, but in Canada and Europe, and in just this past September and October, Rachel's Challenge reached 700,000 students. "We're not telling them what not to do," says McCoy. "We're telling them what they can do to make a difference."
It all sounds promising, and certainly better than doing nothing. But do students really absorb and take away valuable lessons from these efforts?
"My hope, even if they don't get it now, is that maybe in college they will," says Brachtenbach. She adds, "Carrying these skills with you through life is incredibly important so that you have that foundation, so you're that member of society that is positive."