BAYFIELD – At Bayfield Intermediate School, high school students and their younger peers sit in a circle and try to balance a beach ball on strings held between them.
In the activity, the ball represents challenges in life. As more students hold more strings, they begin to build a literal web of support, the students said.
The older students led the activity as part of an annual Friends of Rachel Club event, which focused on spreading kindness in the community.
The FOR Club was founded in 2011 as part of Rachel’s Challenge, an organization that started in honor of Rachel Scott, the first student killed in the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. The Bayfield School District, like others around the country, is using new strategies to support wellness in schools, and the kindness event Jan. 28 allowed students to lead that process.
“There’s plenty of ways that somebody can give back,” said Dylan Hilliker, a Bayfield senior. “But for me, being a part of FOR Club ... means a lot more because it’s giving back to the community in a way that’s going to make this a better place in the future.”
During the event, 25 high school students met with every third-, fourth- and fifth-grade class at the intermediate school. With each class, the high school students led activities and talked about different issues with the younger students. Then, they planned an act of kindness together.
For example, the third grade program focused on how to be kind to people who are different from you. They did “alike interviews,” pairing students who don’t normally spend time with each other.
“They were all talking and laughing with each other,” said Halle Loveday, a Bayfield junior. “I think that’s what struck me the most, the fact that they were so open.”
In fourth grade, the message was that every student has support. Fifth-grade students learned about cyberbullying.
“One of the biggest impacts was for our younger ones to look up to those high-schoolers as a very solid role model,” said Rob Stafford, Bayfield Intermediate School counselor. “They adore those high school kids.”
The high school students practice public speaking and group leadership. Working with younger students also drives home the responsibility of being a good role model.
“I was looking at the high-schoolers, like I want to be like them one day,” Hilliker said, remembering his time in elementary school. “The influence that you have on younger people is very important to understand.”
Bayfield students continue to see some online and in-person bullying behaviors among students, said Jennifer Leithauser, a high school counselor and FOR Club adviser.
When Hilliker was a freshman, the upperclassmen hazed the younger grades. Friend groups were socially divided, and people were often made fun of, he said.
In response, the district focused on a “culture of caring.” To help students feel supported, the schools have implemented social-emotional educational strategies, including curriculum and structural changes, and resilience programs, like Sources of Strength.
Leithauser said she sees the impacts.
“There’s less stigma attached to saying, ‘I’m having a terrible day. I’m sad all the time. I need help,’” she said.
Hilliker and Loveday have seen an improvement since they started high school.
“We’re getting there,” Loveday said.