By Christine Sampson
Most Pierson Middle-High School students were not even born yet when two Columbine High School students terrorized their own school with guns and bombs in 1999 just outside Denver, Colorado, killing 12 students and a teacher and injuring 24 others.
Pierson students left school on Tuesday with an understanding not just of the Columbine shooting but also of the legacy of kindness left behind by one of its victims, Rachel Joy Scott.
Rachel’s family transformed grief into a movement to prevent bullying, harassment and violence in schools. Now, Rachel’s Challenge has arrived at Pierson, where students have been tasked with starting what Rachel described as “a chain reaction” of kindness in the journals and essays her family found after her death.
“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,” Rachel wrote. “People will never know how far a little kindness can go.”
Audible sniffles could be heard throughout Tuesday morning’s presentation at Pierson, which started by rehashing gritty television news coverage and 911 calls from the Columbine shooting before offering a softer side of the tragedy: Clips of Rachel as a smiling toddler up to her years as a bungee-jumping, arm-wrestling teenager with an unrelenting penchant for writing and genuine love for her fellow human beings.
Influenced by Anne Frank, the young Holocaust victim, and by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote about breaking “the chain reaction of evil,” Rachel suggested people give others “three chances” and said people should rid their lives of prejudices. She challenged people to dream big.
DeeDee Cooper, a friend of Rachel’s family who travels around the country giving presentations on behalf of the organization, told the Pierson students on Tuesday, “I’m here to remind you that you have a choice … to choose positive influences. You have the power to bring out the best in others.”
“Choosing positive influences” is just one of the five tenets of Rachel’s Challenge, according to Ms. Cooper. She broke down Rachel’s Challenge into four more: “Look for the best in others,” “dream big,” “speak with kindness” and “start your own chain reaction.”
After school on Tuesday, more than 20 students took part in a training session to launch a Rachel’s Challenge club.
“I was crying a lot,” said Olivia Aupperlee, a junior. “I think it inspired me to definitely not judge so much, because I know I’m guilty of that sometimes. I’m going to treat others as I would want to be treated.”
Sage Witty, also a junior, said Rachel’s Challenge has reminded him that “it’s worth being kind to other people. When you’re kind to someone, it stays with them and changes their day.”
Pierson assistant principal Michael Guinan said the idea to bring in the program came not in response to specific incidents or a generally poor school climate, but rather from a Sag Harbor School Board goal that asked administrators to improve the students’ social and emotional wellbeing.
“I think that Pierson enjoys a highly positive school culture,” Mr. Guinan said Wednesday. “We aim to promote kindness, caring and empathy in addition to academic achievement. We’re very successful, but you can’t take that success for granted. We can always get better and make this place a warmer, more inviting and safer place for children emotionally.”
Rachel’s Challenge specifically says it aims to stop bullying in schools. According to New York State Education Department data, Pierson saw seven incidents of “intimidation, harassment, menacing or bullying” in the 2016-17 school year, up from five in the 2015-16 school year and zero in the 2014-15 school year. The National Center for School Engagement has reported 160,000 students skip school each day out of the fear of being bullied.
“There are incidents of bullying here, but they are far fewer than in my experience with high schools,” Mr. Guinan said.
The issues of social and emotional wellness are tied to problems such as substance abuse and teen suicide, he said.
“It’s all part of making sure the students are well, making healthy choices and taking care of themselves and one another,” Mr. Guinan said.
Rachel’s Challenge at Pierson is supported by a $7,000 donation from Long Island Communities of Practice and The Tyler Project, an organization founded in 2014 to help end the epidemic of youth suicide and named for Tyler Valcich, a Montauk man who took his own life at the age of 20.
“I think it was really powerful to be shown how big an impact one person can have,” junior Cooper Schiavoni said, “like Rachel’s chain reaction.”