Anti-bullying program, created from Columbine tragedy, visits New Brighton


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Rachel Joy Scott never stepped foot inside New Brighton Middle School during her short life and yet, 13 years after her death, her memory is poised to make the school a kinder, gentler place.

Rachel, 17, was the first person killed at Columbine High School on May 20, 1999, when fellow students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire, killing 12 students and one teacher and injuring more than 20 others in what would become the worst mass murder at a U.S. high school.

Initial reports of the incident indicated the boys had been the victim of bullies, but later reports described the boys as bullies themselves.

Rachel's family started a program in her memory called "Rachel's Challenge," which travels to schools across the country carrying a message found in her diary about her desire to start a "chain reaction" of good deeds in order to make the world a better place.

The program, which costs $5,000 to present, was brought to New Brighton Middle School Wednesday through a donation from the United Methodist Church of New Brighton, and is being incorporated into the school's anti-bullying program for the 350 students in grades 6, 7 and 8.

Of those students, about 70 volunteered for training to start a "Friends of Rachel" club at the school that would focus on the anti-bullying, pro-compassion philosophy of Rachel's Challenge.

The students were eager to absorb the message and suggest ways to bring it to life in their building.

"I just started here in fifth grade, and I sat by myself. I want to make a change that when someone is new, everyone will be by their side," said Caitlyn Reyers, a sixth-grader.

"It made me feel like I could help others who are in pain and suffering," said Caitlyn's classmate Joshua Laveing.

Rachel's Challenge was started the year of her death by her father, Darrell, after the discovery of Rachel's diaries. Original presenters were Rachel's family -- she has four siblings, a mother and step-mother -- but it was quickly met with such demand that other presenters were hired.

"Rachel had no idea we'd be in this auditorium talking about what she wrote," said Frank Simmons Jr. of Cincinnati, one of about 50 presenters for the Rachel's Challenge program.

Mr. Simmons said he believed his visit to New Brighton marked the first time the program was brought to southwestern Pennsylvania. He is scheduled to speak today at South Side Area Middle School in Hookstown.

Mr. Simmons said Rachel was inspired to keep a diary by Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl whose diary chronicled her family's life in hiding in the German-controlled Netherlands during World War II.

Mr. Simmons said messages from Rachel's diary applied to her situation and Anne Frank's, particularly her message to "look for the best in others and eliminate prejudice."

The presentation at New Brighton covered Rachel's story and dramatic news footage from the day of the Columbine shootings, including the recording of a 911 call made from a teacher in the school's library while the shootings were taking place and her screaming for students to get under their desks. It showed flashes of students coming out of the school with their hands over their heads and then rushing to reunite with their parents who waited anxiously outside.

Rachel was shot as she ate lunch on an outside lawn with a friend. The shooters went on to make their way through the school's cafeteria and library, where most of the shootings took place. They took their own lives in the library.

The video presentation followed with recorded interviews with one of Rachel's teachers who said she "never heard her say an unkind word to anyone" and two students who identified themselves as outcasts and bullies at Columbine High School, who both said Rachel was kind and encouraging to them when other students weren't.

Mr. Simmons gave five challenges to the students who want to be part of the Friends of Rachel Club: Get rid of prejudices about people; treat others the way you want to be treated; choose positive influences; speak words of kindness, not cruelty; and forgive yourself and those who have done you wrong.

The program had a deep impact on eighth-grader Kennidy Allen.

"It made me think that I want to help people who are hurting," Kennidy said. "You never know when your life will end and you want to help while you are living."

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Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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