Every day 160,000 students skip school because they're bullied, teased and harassed. In September, schools and communities in Wayne, Pike and Susquehanna counties are taking steps to end this destructive behavior by launching "Rachel's Challenge," a powerful anti-bullying campaign that also quells school violence and teen suicide.
The program is based on the writings and life of 17-year-old Rachel Joy Scott, the first student killed in the Columbine shootings in 1999.
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 of the same. People will never know how far a little kindness can go."
Rachel's Challenge will be offered at Forest City Regional, Wallenpaupack Area, Wayne Highlands and Western Wayne School districts and consists of live presentations, leadership training and community events.
The program is being brought to the area by Wayne Memorial Hospital and Wayne County Behavioral and Developmental Programs and Early Intervention, with the support of the Wayne County commissioners.
"We don't want this to be a one-time event. This is really the launch for a whole community-wide awareness of how kindness can make a difference," said Margaret Ennis, Administrator at the Wayne County office of Behavioral and Developmental Programs and Early Intervention.
Ennis is the community coordinator of the local Rachel's Challenge program along with Donna Decker, RN, Manager of Community Health at the hospital.
"This program isn't just for schools; it also helps increase kindness and decrease violence in the workplace," Decker added.
Studies show that 30 percent of kids admit to being a bully, being bullied or both. In the 12 to 18 age group, bullied students are four times more likely to bring a weapon to school.
Being bullied causes feelings of isolation and despair. About 4,400 young people kill themselves every year, and 30 percent of suicides are directly related to bullying.
This year, a 16-year-old boy committed suicide in Wayne County, where suicide rates in all age groups have increased from two deaths in 1980 to 16 in 2012. Coroner Edward R. Howell wants to change these statistics.
"As I have said many times, I don't want to see anyone professionally," Howell said. "I believe a good portion of my job as coroner is prevention."
Prevention is one cornerstone of Rachel's Challenge. Since the Scott family launched the program in 1999, more than 18 million people worldwide have been touched by Rachel's message about the impact of even small acts of kindness.
Page 2 of 3 - In 2011 and 2012, more than 100 suicides and other violent acts were averted in U.S. schools, and three school shootings were prevented.
In the last three years, more than 500 students emailed the website to say the program gave them the courage to ask for help when they were considering suicide.
Schools across the country report that disciplinary actions have been cut in half and students feel safer at school. One middle school in Georgia documented 10,000 acts of kindness.
How can one program achieve so much? Because it gives students permission to reach out, be kind and be positive. Spellbinding and impassioned school assemblies are held for elementary, middle and high school students, with programs for young children encouraging kindness without mentioning Columbine.
In addition, 100 middle and high school students from each participating school receive training on how to become peer educators. Faculty attending the training sessions work with students to break down barriers and start open, honest communication between students and adult staff members.
Ellie Ennis, Margaret's daughter, is one of a handful of students chosen by area schools to promote the program over the summer, in parades, at the Wayne County Fair and at other community events.
Ellie will also become a peer educator at Forest City this fall. She said her school plans to make handprints for every K-12 student to sign, because Rachel had traced her hand and written: "These hands belong to Rachel Joy Scott and will someday touch millions of people's hearts."
"Bullying happens in every grade," Ellie said. "You feel bad, and all you can do is be there for them and help them."
The anti-bullying program kicks off on Friday, Sept. 6, with an all-day conference for teachers, community leaders and other professionals at the Woodloch Pines nightclub. The fee of $50 includes lunch, and some scholarships are available. The speaker will be Darrell Scott, Rachel's father.
The program continues with in-school assemblies for K-12 students. Assemblies will be held at the school for students on these days and then for the community the same days at 7pm.
Rachel's Challenge Community Programs are free and start at 7 p.m.
Here's the lineup:
• Wallenpaupack Area HS on Tuesday, Sept. 10,
• Wayne Highlands on Thursday, Sept. 12
Page 3 of 3 - • Western Wayne on Wednesday, Sept. 25
• Forest City on Thursday, Sept. 26.
For more information on all programs, call Donna Decker at 570-253-8422.
And look for orange T-shirts throughout the community that say "Rachel's Challenge: Start a Chain Reaction" on the front and "Inspiring Others with Kindness" on the back. The goal is to create "a sea of orange," Ennis said. She added: "There's an energy that happens when Rachel's Challenge comes into a community -- a palpable change in the school's atmosphere."
Coronor Howell summed it up: "I firmly believe Rachel's Challenge may completely change the lives of families and individuals alike. Please, let's join together. Our lives may never be the same."
For more information on Rachel's Challenge, visit www.rachelschallenge.org. For statistics on bullying in schools, visit www.bullyfree.com and www.bullyingstatistics.org.