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Students, faculty start 'Chain Reaction' of kindness at Baltimore Highlands Elementary

Columbine High School Massacre (1999)

Students, teachers and staff at Baltimore Highlands Elementary teamed up last week to start a chain reaction of kindness in hopes of diminishing bullying in school.

Their efforts, which began Sept. 16, are part of a year-long program called Rachel's Challenge, a nationwide effort to encourage kindness in schools, businesses and communities.

Rachel Joy Scott was 17 when she was the first person shot and killed in the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999, in Colorado. The incident left 11 other students and one teacher dead, and 23 injured.

Amanda Johnson, vice principal at Baltimore Highlands, first heard about the challenge on June 28 during the Baltimore County Public Schools Safe Schools Conference.

"She knew she was going to die young," Johnson said of Rachel Scott. "She had a premonition, she told her friends, and she was OK with it.

"And she also wanted to make an impact in the world," Johnson said.

Scott's journal entries and essays revealed a desire to change the world through random acts of kindness. Her parents started Rachel's Challenge to encourage participants to not only commit random acts of kindness, but recognize others for their acts as well.

"She said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if one person could go out of their way and do something nice for other?'," Johnson said of Scott. "You never know what one act of kindness can do."

Baltimore Highlands teamed up with Lansdowne Middle, its feeder school, to participate in the challenge.

Members of both schools are encouraged to write down acts of kindness they witnessed, heard about or performed on a strip of paper. Those strips are connected to form individual chains in classrooms throughout the school. The chains will be connected to form one later in the year.

"We're really focusing on building relationships, not only with students, but with staff members," said Baltimore Highlands Principal Brian Williams. "When you see someone else doing nice things for you, it makes you feel good so you want to then in turn do something nice for someone else.

"It's making then feel good by making someone else feel good," he said. "Everyone is invested in recognizing others for the things that they do."

One fifth-grade class has taken the challenge to the challenge to heart. In the first week of the challenge, Christopher Carter's 22 fifth-graders committed more than 120 random acts of kindness together.

"Our students just took off with it," Carter said. "Every day they came in with more to write."

He said the students have been going out of their way to recognize not only their classmates, but also others outside the classroom and even outside the school.

"To begin with, they were a nice group of students," Carter said. "Since Rachel's Challenge, it's become a lot more evident that they're caring for each other."

The students are noticing the difference as well. Gloria Rivas and Kyle Knott, both 10, are in Carter's class and said the challenge has brought them all closer together.

"We used to fight a lot," Kyle said of his classmates. "But not as much now.

"Almost everyone has at least five [chain links] already," he said. "We've been getting along together well."

Gloria said that, as a reward for their good work, the students got Popsicles and 10 extra minutes of recess last week.

Because the challenge lasts all year, the sky is the limit for her class.

More than 1,000 by the end of this year," Gloria said of the group's goal.

Johnson and Williams are thrilled with the program's effect thus far and hope to keep the excitement going throughout the school year.

"This program really gets at people's hearts, the emotional side of how someone is feeling," Williams said. "That's what we're hoping that, over time, will continue to grow here."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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