Coon Rapids students aim to obliviate the hate

One hundred students from Coon Rapids (CRHS) and Centennial high schools gathered last fall to discuss how to end bullying in their schools.

In an effort to bring parents, guardians and community members into the conversation, an Obliviate the Hate summit took Monday at CRHS. About 70 students, parents, guardians and community members attended the event.

CRHS sophomore Janet Irankunda spoke about her experience at the October retreat.

While students walked into the day thinking it would be just another talk about how bad bullying is, they were surprised to find out it was much different, she said.

They learned that one out of four teens is bullied, that if a bystander intervenes a bullying conflict can end in less than 10 seconds and about how damaging cyber bullying can be, Irankunda said.

“By the end of the retreat we were inspired to make a change,” she said.

The summit’s keynote speaker was Dr. David Walsh, a psychologist, educator and author, who spoke about fostering respect and courage in 21st century youth.

Walsh began his presentation with a story. A grandfather told his grandson he had two wolves battling inside of him; one was kind and caring, the other mean and selfish. The grandson asked his grandfather which wolf would win. The grandfather said, “Whichever wolf I feed.”

“We need to create a culture that feeds respect and where people cooperate with each other,” Walsh said.

Walsh talked about character traits parents would like to see in their children, such as respect, kindness and honesty.

He said these traits don’t happen automatically, they have to be fed and developed. Many ask themselves how a culture of disrespect and meanness takes hold.

Walsh points to how many screens are in people’s lives and compete for time and attention. Television, video games, websites and social media sites were not created for entertainment; they exist to provide a vehicle for advertisers.

Some television, video games and websites use “cheap jolts” for attention, which could be violence or disrespectful behavior, according to Walsh.

“We become desensitized to the violence, so it is increased,” Walsh said.

“We’ve gone from a story telling culture to a ‘make my day’ culture. And we see this in political leaders. Instead of solving problems they are fighting with each other all the time. It’s like a virus and it works its way into bullying.

“We have a real challenge. It’s a tribute to the students who are here tonight who want to change this culture.”

Walsh explained how the brain develops the science behind bullying. When students are being bullied, their thinking shifts from the part of the brain that is used to think and learn to part of the brain involved with survival, he said.

It is difficult for a student to sit in class and learn if he or she is thinking about being bullied at school, on the bus or through social media, Walsh said.

“Kids who are bullied are more anxious,” he said. “They skip school because their brain is in survival mode. They use drugs to dull the pain. Each day in the U.S., about 160,000 children stay home from school because they were scared and didn’t want to be bullied.”

In general, children are bullied because they are “different.” This could refer to their appearance, religion or sexual orientation, according to Walsh.

Parents and guardians can looks for signs of being bullied such as unexplained injuries, children avoiding certain places or playing alone, children who have few friends, and those who make statements that indicate helplessness, Walsh said.

Walsh also shared symptoms of being a bully, including trouble controlling anger, blames others, does not accept responsibility and needs to win or be the best. Bullies are often popular students, he said.

Social media has given the old problem of bullying new methods to be delivered, according to Walsh.

It provides bullies with ease and access to private space (students are no longer “safe” once they are home behind a locked door), spread rumors quickly and give bullies a sense of anonymity, Walsh said.

Things that would never be said to a person’s face are posted on social media sites, he said, showing a slide that said, “If you wouldn’t say it in person, why say it online? Don’t write it.”

In providing guidance to parents and guardians in the audience, Walsh said to remember the children are always watching adults.

They look to see how their parents talk about someone of a different culture or religion, treat other drivers, act at sporting events and what actions they take when they see someone being treated disrespectfully or unfairly, he said.

“The parents’ role in bullying prevention is communication; talk to your kids about how you define bullying and what disrespectful and healthy relationships are,” Walsh said.

In line with the CRHS and Centennial students’ work as part of the empowering bystander grant from the Anoka County Children and Family Council, Walsh spoke about bystanders.

“There are two groups of bystanders; those who watch and don’t say anything and those who join in,” Walsh said.

“Bullies like an audience; 85 percent of bullying happens when other kids are around,” he said.

Only one out of 10 bystanders intervene – the students who intervene will change that norm at CRHS, Walsh said.

“What the students are talking about doing is not easy,” he said. “Bystanders can do everything from anonymously reporting an incident to an adult to saying something to the bully.

“It’s not easy to stand up and say ‘that’s not cool,’ when someone is being bullied. It takes a lot of courage.”

In his discussion of the brain, Walsh said one thing the brain likes to do is answer questions.

As he ended the evening, Walsh asked the students to reflect on questions to help them change the culture at CRHS such as will you push against the tide of disrespect; will you stand up for everybody; and will you show courage when things are hard?

His final question was, will you have a school where everyone feels safe?

Students at CRHS will continue their Obliviate the Hate work with a week of activities set for the end of February.

  • Melissa Thompson

    It’s really very unfortunate that more people were not made aware of this great event or that more students didn’t get the opportunity to participate in this valuable training. So many parents came up to me or messaged me after I posted on my facebook that I had attended saying “They would have attended had they known because they are desperate for resources.” I simply passed on some of what I havd gathered and will attempt to get more that I can distribute, because the need is great.

    I attended that evening and while the total number of people “present” may have been 70 to include vendors and organizers there were maybe 20 members of the school community that were not otherwise “connected to this event” in attendance. Dr. Walsh was a treasure trove of information that parents of teens could really use, I know I learned alot and I’ve been parenting for almost 30 years. Am applying some the lessons learned already.

    There were 8-10 booths/tables of mental health resorces and people available for questions and with take away resources that sadly could have been snapped up had people known. Organizers clearly anticipated alot more people as well because they ended up donating a couple dozen pizzas to the Salvation Army.

    Hopefully knowing the need and seeing the effect this had on the kids that participated this program will be implemented “district wide” rather than just confined to this one school and benefitting only the students within it. Really a missed opportunity to “maximize” a generous gift that didn’t cost the district a dime. Thank to Anoka County for seeing the need and attempting to help.