Recent tragic incidents of school violence continue to place the issues of bullying, cyber bullying and school safety at the top of nearly every education agenda around the country. Towson-area schools and organizations are establishing environments where kindness, wellness, and self-respect are pillars of their respective institutions.
West Towson Elementary School has established a Character Crew comprising five fifth-grade students who work as a team to brainstorm and collaborate on ways to define and identify positive behavior traits and practices. Every two weeks, the school community focuses on a different character trait.
On Oct. 25, students and staff members embraced "individuality" by wearing their shirts inside-out, signifying that it is who you are on the inside that really counts.
Behavior intervention specialist Mandy Pfeffer, of Parkville, and school counselor Erin Ruocco, of Towson, meet with the Character Crew weekly.
"It is our job to protect our students and to do so, we must create a culture of kindness in which bullying and other negative behavior becomes unacceptable to students," Pfeffer said.
Students in "the crew" serve as role models, displaying positive behavior for their peers and younger students. They were selected to run the first year of West Towson's Character Education Program.
"To encourage other kids, it means that you need to show them what to do and they will follow you, especially younger children," said fifth-grader and crew member Mikayla Gaddy. "It helps them to build up confidence and to be kind to others. I have seen differences in my classes where children are being kinder to other kids who do not have partners or who may not get chosen all the time."
Another member of the group, Tommy Welling, believes real change happens at the peer level. "Sometimes it is hard learning these traits from adults because we are learning from adults all day. You get more when you learn from your peers because we are on their level. I think that it helps kids who may be being bullied to know that someone their own age really cares."
Proactive events such as Inside-Out Day are also part of a more quantifiable initiative to reduce incidents of bullying.
"One of my big goals is to decrease our bullying referrals by 20 percent over last year," Ruocco said. "This is important to me as a counselor and part of the West Towson community because we are seeing way too many tragic events happening at schools due to bullying and students just being mean to one another. It just needs to come to an end."
West Towson Elementary is not alone in making wellness and kindness a priority.
Recently, students in the women's studies class at Notre Dame Prep sponsored a Women's Advocacy Day where they reminded students, teachers, men and women that everyone is strong and beautiful. Students also support the regional effort Kindness for Grace, which raises awareness about bullying and encourages people to extend kindness to everyone through positive communication, encouragement, and kindness.
At Loch Raven High School, students are planning an anti-bullying day, where they will present an anti-bullying pledge and banner for students to sign, among other activities.
On Oct. 20, Towson Presbyterian Church joined other congregations around the world in observing Children's Sabbath. Children displayed artwork that reinforced ways in which children can reach out to other children who may be in need of help, or who are lonely, forgotten, teased or bullied. Artwork included hands made of paper or clay that hold a child's expression of kindness.
Outside, in the church garden, students hung lines of small bright flags for their neighbors from West Towson and Southland Hills. The flags, still on display, have messages of kindness, justice, and peace written on them.
West Towson fifth-grader Olivia Hatcher believes all of these initiatives can make a lifelong difference. "Some kids need the power to stand up for themselves in the future. I want all kids to be strong and be themselves and to have these traits so they can make friends and do everything that a good friend would do."