Alexandra Romero, 18, was inspired to take a stand against bullying and intolerance after witnessing it in its simplest form.
Romero, a senior at Central Islip High School, noticed a girl in one of her classes who sat alone. Most of her peers ignored her, she said.
One day, Romero sat down at the girl’s table. They began to talk and realized they had other classes together, as well. Eventually, the girl told Romero that she was the only friend she’d ever made.
“That hurt me,” Romero said. “To know that she went through that. But I created a chain reaction. Other people started to sit with her, too. All of a sudden, it was, like, the cool thing to do.”
A new initiative taking place at 10 high schools on Long Island aims to channel an attitude like Romero’s into an organized student-led campaign to promote tolerance and end bullying. The initiative is being led by Child Abuse Prevention Services, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent bullying and child abuse, and was made possible this year by a $25,000 grant from the Long Island Community Foundation.
Mor Keshet, coordinator for CAPS Bully Prevention Center, said she started the initiative to give students a voice in the fight against bullying.
“So much emphasis is placed on adults -- teachers, parents, administrators,” she said. “And who does it affect the most? The students were not actively involved in the solution.”
At each school, Keshet moderates a three-hour training session, , split into two sessions, for a select group of students. At the first session, students identify their school’s “social norms,” or things that have become acceptable socially that shouldn’t be -- like using derogatory language or sexting, two of the most common issues she heard mentioned during the sessions.
At the second session, students create a list of goals and plan a strategy to achieve them.
At Central Islip High School, about 20 students met Monday with Keshet and social studies teacher Matthew Hawker for their second session. Many of the students said they were there because they had friends who had been bullied at school or online, and they wanted to change the culture of the school.
“We need to create a positive atmosphere,” said Emily Blanco, 16, of Central Islip. “We don’t really have that here. People, if they see somebody different, they automatically judge them. They don’t give anybody a chance. Cliques don’t accept other cliques.”
The students identified goals for their school, including creating an atmosphere of self and unilateral respect, being proactive against bullying, and stopping abusive language online and offline.
They agreed to meet weekly and get others involved, and they identified the ways they think their message should be spread: through performance art, murals, planned tolerance activities and multimedia projects. They also agreed they wanted to reach out to younger students in the middle and elementary schools to start teaching anti-bullying earlier.
“Think of what kind of campaign would get your attention,” Keshet advised them. Though the second session is Keshet’s last official meeting with the students, she said she is in constant contact with the group afterward to provide advice and resources as they move forward in their campaign.
Andrea Jaramillo, 16, is a member of the student group. She said she believed their involvement would make a difference.
“Honestly, no one listens to the teachers,” she said. “We need to speak up. This has to come from us.”
Above: Emily Blanco, 16, of Central Islip, writes down a list of goals established for her peers on Monday during an anti-bullying workshop at Central Islip High School.