Tammany ushers in anti-bullying program

As St. Tammany students return to school, they have more to challenge them than finding their classrooms, remembering their locker number and keeping up with their textbooks. For students in grades six and higher, they are being challenged to create a school year that’s free of bullying.

Rachel’s Challenge, a national program created in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, will bring a team to St. Tammany Parish. They will train Salmen High School students during the school day, and present a free public education program at 7 p.m. Friday in the school cafeteria at 300 Spartan Drive, Slidell.

The program is named for the first student killed at Columbine, 17-year-old Rachel Scott, and is being brought to St. Tammany through business and school partnerships.

Salmen High is the first to take the challenge, partnering with Ochsner Medical Center North Shore.

Slidell High has since partnered with Slidell Memorial Hospital to bring the team to its school.

Local volunteers Jane Alford, Kim Bergeron, Debbie Crouch, Ron Davis, Vicky Magas, Sharron Newton and Wynn Williams are working with the St. Tammany Parish School Board, the District PTA, Rotary Club of Slidell and Rotary Club of Slidell Northshore to help foster partnerships throughout the parish.

The effect of the training is life-changing, Bergeron said, and that effect is sustained through student groups called “Friends of Rachel.”

The young Columbine student was known for reaching out to students who were new, different or bullied by others. Her writings, found after her death, are a testament to her belief that a single act of kindness can start a chain reaction that can foster compassion and dissipate feelings of isolation and despair.

Bergeron has been inspired by what she’s learned about Rachel Scott.

“She was known for being a joyful and positive person who would get between bullies” and their victims.

Rachel’s Challenge teaches that bullying is not cool, she said. “It’s powerful and it’s going to make a difference.”

But the statistic that most impressed her was a report that schools using Rachel’s Challenge see a 60 percent decline in disciplinary problems.

“Think about what teachers can do with 60 percent more time for teaching,” she said.

Schools must put up at least 50 percent of the cost, to be invested, she said, and business sponsors fund the match. Businesses can sponsor a school of their choice or make a donation to help expand the program throughout the parish.

By creating a pool of funding, Bergeron said it can be more cost-effective — and have more impact — to bring Rachel’s Challenge, which is based in Littleton, Colo., to train in multiple schools.

In the years since Scott’s death, there are new and equally deadly ways of bullying that have developed through the use of social media.

St. Tammany Parish has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, Bergeron said, and youths can turn to drugs, alcohol and even suicide as a result of bullying.

“Often parents are unaware bullying is going on in their own homes through social media,” she said.

She urges parents and grandparents to have the courage to step forward and say that bullying is unacceptable.

“We have an obligation to protect our kids,” she said. “If we save one life in this parish, it’s worth it.”

Sponsor forms and additional information are available from any of the team members or at www.facebook.com/RachelsChallengeStTammany.

Information and program videos are available at the organization’s website, www.rachelschallenge.org.

For more information on the St. Tammany initiative, contact the team co-chairwomen Kim Bergeron at (985) 640-0169 or Debbie Crouch at (504) 451-2333.