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  1. Education

Student brings Rachel's Challenge to combat bullying, encourage tolerance at Ridgewood High

Sophomore year was turning into a rough one for Angela Vachon. Back then she was the new kid. Things weren't going as she had anticipated since leaving family in New Port Richey to live with her father and stepmother in the small town of Pembroke, N.H.

She didn't feel comfortable sharing her difficult situation with her new classmates.

"In high school people split up into their own group and some of the times they can be judgmental of people who are different," she said. "People judge you by how you look — not what's inside — and I knew how to fake a smile."

It was lonely, trying time. But that was soon remedied by another challenge — one laid down over 13 years ago by another high school kid from Colorado.

• • •

Rachel Joy Scott was the first to die at Columbine High School. On April 20, 1999, the 17-year-old senior was gunned down by two classmates while enjoying an outdoor lunch with friends at the school's entrance. Thirteen died and 27 were wounded that day in one of the worst school shootings in the nation's history.

To those around her, Rachel was a normal teenager with typical struggles and aspirations. She loved music and photography and sported an eclectic sense of fashion. She had a kind, yet spirited nature and a noble habit of sticking up for others being hassled at school. But it wasn't till after her family pored through her six journals and a two-page high school essay she had written six weeks before the massacre that they discovered her mature wisdom.

Rachel's essay titled, "My Ethics, My Codes of Life," outlined and argued the basic tenets she held of "being honest, compassionate and looking for the best and beauty of everyone." She wrote prolifically about that, and in the end challenged the reader to give her code a try with the notion they too might start a chain reaction.

It did.

• • •

Angela was just 3 years old in 1999, too young to remember Columbine as it unfolded before a horrified nation. It was at Pembroke Academy that Angela met Rachel through a 45-minute presentation called Rachel's Challenge.

The antibullying program was founded by Rachel's dad and stepmother, Darrell and Sandy Scott. Through slide shows and video, the speaker-led program travels to schools, offering a brief synopsis of Rachel's short life, the Columbine tragedy and the inspirational thoughts lifted from Rachel's writing that have become the tools in cultivating a tenor of kindness.

"It had a major impact on my life," Angela said. "It amazed me that you can take something so tragic and make it positive. It made me want to be kind and stick up for other people."

Angela said she noticed a change at her school as well. "There was a lot of bullying going on, but after Rachel's Challenge people were being kind — being more inclusive. They weren't leaving people out as much as before."

• • •

In early November, Angela stood in the Ridgewood High School gymnasium as students packed into the bleachers to hear speaker Dee Dee Cooper talk about Rachel's Challenge.

This had been Angela's doing, partly to fulfill a community service component of her senior project assignment, but also to answer Rachel's Challenge on a personal level.

"When I moved back down here, I noticed that there was a lot of bullying going on at the school, in the halls and in the classrooms," Angela said. "I wanted to bring what I learned at my school in New Hampshire, here."

Angela spent time researching the psychology of bullying and the Columbine tragedy for a required research paper. She also lobbied English teacher and senior project adviser Joe Kelly, guidance counselor Diane Clukey Chenard and then-principal Andy Frelick to bring Rachel's Challenge to Ridgewood High.

"I thought it would make a good impact on the kids," said Frelick, who quickly acquired district approval and grant funds.

"I was impressed that a student brought this to me," Kelly said. "I just thought any time we could do something positive like this, we should."

"I'm always excited when one of the kids wants to do something to erase hate," Chenard said. "She followed through. She's an absolutely amazing young lady."

When the assembly concluded, some students headed back to class, but others lined up to accept Rachel's Challenge by signing their names on a large white banner laid out on the school stage.

"It was so sad," said Amanda Kory, still wiping away tears with a sweater sleeve. "It touched my heart, the good soul that this girl had. I really hope it helps. There's a lot of good people here."

"I cried, but it was a wonderful presentation," said Dakota Gale. "Bullying is a big problem — it's major — but I'm hoping honestly that this will make them (students) think about it and stop it themselves."

There's some opportunity to make that happen.

Along with the guidance department, Angela is hosting a newly formed "Friends of Rachel Club" at Ridgewood. Plans are also in the works to sponsor inclusive activities such as "High Five Fridays" and "Mix It Up at Lunch Days" where students spend a lunch period chatting it up with those outside their typical inner circles.

"This program had a big effect on me," Angela said. "I want to make these halls safer. I want to make this school a better place."