NEW PORT RICHEY — The dozen Fivay High school students and their administrators arrived at the Pasco County school district’s annual Together We Stand conference with a clear goal in mind.
With hundreds of former Ridgewood High students arriving in the fall, they wanted to discover new ways to keep teens from feeling lost in the shuffle.
"I think it’s going to be very beneficial for us to take back," said rising junior Riley Russ, among the reassigned Ridgewood students who had concerns about the potential clash of rival campus cultures. "I think we’re definitely going to be more involved and try to make it a happier place where we don’t feel left out."
No one wanted to say it, but the issue of student ostracism carried a heavier weight this year because of the spate of school shootings in recent months, including two in Florida. The concern that a child who is bullied, cast off or disdained could become the next purveyor of violence
"It’s in the back of the head. It’s just there," said Fivay rising senior Cole Waide. "When people feel more connected with each other, they don’t have to worry and have something to fear."
After the Parkland shooting in February, state leaders took steps to establish safer schools. Much of the conversation focused on armed officers, gun controls, locked doors and fences.
Equally important was the discussion about offering mental health services and counseling, and finding ways to prevent problems that might lead children to act out.
Pasco started down the path six years ago. Superintendent Kurt Browning, then new to the post, faced what he called a "persistent bullying mentality" in the schools.
"It was just under the radar, but you kept hearing about it," he explained. "We need to provide a safe learning environment for all of our kids."
He and his staff established Together We Stand, at first as an anti-bullying summit where students could discuss issues and help find solutions. It has morphed into a gathering on unity, diversity and "how we all live together in this place called school."
"Adults can try to address the problems or the issues we face every day," Browning told the students. "I am a firm believer that students play a huge role in helping us solve these issues ... We really want to engage your ideas."
Fivay principal Christina Stanley said she brought such a large contingent of students to the June 4 session to ensure they have a role in uniting the two student bodies. She’s aware some students have directed negative comments at one another, and knows the wrong step could have dire consequences.
"It makes our job that much more unique," Stanley said. "We have our work cut out for us for relationship building."
With students from Hudson High, Hudson Middle and Bayonet Point Middle, the Fivay group worked through questions of what bullying looks like, how to prevent personal attacks and how to encourage team building.
They discussed what schools should provide to inform students about inclusiveness, and whether schools can prevent students from targeting one another over anything from what they wear to the friends they keep.
Some questioned whether schools could do much on their own.
"Even if people have assemblies in schools, a lot of kids don’t care," said Fivay rising senior Lauren Marquez. "Parents, they’re not going to be always fully involved in what their kids are doing ... It’s harder for some people."
Kids need to control what’s in their power, she said, and not just be affected by others. But that takes time, and Marquez and others suggested that everyone can do their part.
Rising senior Jayvon Wilson, a leader in Fivay’s sports teams and ROTC, said he intends to do so.
"I try to help kids no matter what social group they are in," Wilson said between seminar activities.
Creating an environment where "everyone matters" — as the summit T-shirt proclaimed — is worth the effort, he added.
"Sometimes it’s just doing little, simple things," Wilson said, expressing optimism that his school can lead by example despite facing perhaps the toughest circumstance. "It’s going to get better. We’re just not used to everybody yet."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.