Garrett Greenwood could relate to the new kid in homeroom.
“He was sitting there by himself,” recalled the senior at Cumberland Valley High School. “He was scared to talk to anybody. He was me last year at the beginning of the year.”
The son of an Air Force officer, Greenwood has moved frequently over the course of his young life. Every new school meant a period of adjustment.
So when the opportunity presented itself, he sat next to the new student and introduced himself. Greenwood was on a mission to deliver an invitation from the It Takes One Club.
Classmate Anjana Ramesh also had a chance to talk to a new student, this one from Southeast Asia, at the club’s ice cream social for recent arrivals to the school.
“The next day I realized he was in my class,” she said. “He realized I was one of the leaders. I was the only person he knew. He was overjoyed to see a familiar presence.”
Each encounter was its own effort in countering the negative effects of bullying with the positive message of inclusion. The club is one of many in local school districts where students take the lead in changing the climate and culture within a building.
“There are a lot of kids here,” Greenwood said, noting a high school enrollment of close to 3,000. “It can feel overwhelming.”
New kids, new friendships
Most teenagers come to Cumberland Valley from a smaller school building. The sheer size compounds the usual stressors of fitting in, finding a niche, trying out for sports and coping with higher level academics. Juniors and seniors have the added worry of preparing for a career path beyond graduation.
Studies have found students who transfer into a school district are more likely to leave, drop out or not do well, said Geraldine Johnson, co-adviser of the It Takes One Club.
A behavioral specialist and bullying prevention coordinator, Johnson started the club about eight years ago and works closely with Kim Baldwin, a high school counselor.
“The whole idea is it takes one person to intervene in any kind of peer interaction,” Johnson said. Intervention is the key to supporting the victim and reporting the bully.
One mission of the club is to offer new students opportunities to develop friendships through a variety of activities such as the ice cream social. The new students are encouraged to join the club, which also includes teenagers who grew up within the Cumberland Valley School District.
“Everyone is welcome who wants to participate,” Greenwood said.
“Our goal is to create this inclusive environment,” Ramesh said.
The club meets regularly to socialize and build teamwork.
Students take lead
Club leaders are selected every year among the senior class through a process where they submit an application and are interviewed. In many cases, the leaders had past run-ins with bullies.
Prior to coming to Cumberland Valley, Greenwood was a student at a high school in Alexandria, Virginia, that served a lot of military families with ties to the Pentagon.
“There was a kid on my baseball team at the end of my freshmen year,” Greenwood said. “He was doing a lot of bad stuff to other players and ruining team morale.”
After Greenwood asked the bully to stop, the boy pushed him across the dugout. Greenwood then went to the coach and told him what was going on. “We have no team chemistry at this point. ... Can you please talk to him,” were his words.
But the situation only got worse. The bully enlisted the help of friends to harass Greenwood in school hallways. Rumors spread across the building and social media that Greenwood was a snitch incapable of fighting his own battles. In his sophomore year, he was punched in the face while getting something from his locker. Nothing was done.
“For me, there was no justice for that situation,” Greenwood said. But there was a life lesson he carried into his transfer to Cumberland Valley. Today, he is among the club leaders who speak in front of other students in an effort to change a negative into a positive.
“If there are students being bullied, I can relate to them and let them know I understand what you are going through,” Greenwood said.
Ramesh can also speak from experience. She was bullied in the past but was there recently for a new girl who needed a friend. “I remember her telling me she didn’t really like it here. There were rumors being spread about her.”
Part of the mission of It Takes One is to equip bystanders with techniques to intervene directly or help those who are being bullied, Johnson said. For example, one method is to get with the victim after the incident to lend comfort and to reassure the person the claims made by the bully are not true.
New students are particularly vulnerable because they have no ties to the school. To them, when a bystander fails to intervene, it gives the impression of consent for the actions of the bully, Johnson said. This further isolates the new student. By teaching students to be engaged as bystanders, it takes power away from bullies.
But all too often, high school students are set in their ways. In most cases, they are neutral and only care about bullying if it directly affects them, Greenwood said. “You need to start earlier so you can change the behaviors before they get to high school.”
It Takes One is part of a broader initiative by Cumberland Valley to introduce bullying prevention techniques to elementary and middle school students in order to develop a mindset earlier, Johnson said. “We want it to be part of their character and to come up with it. It’s a major push. We’re trying to put it in the hands of students.”
Lessons on bullying prevention are delivered through school assemblies and classroom sessions and often involve running the younger children through role-playing scenarios.
Another goal is to emphasize the importance of reporting an incident of bullying to school officials, Johnson said. “We are trying to stress if a situation is going on we as a school cannot do anything about it unless you tell us.”
Cumberland Valley School District has established an anonymous tip line to report incidents of bullying. Also, the It Takes One club format may soon be introduced in other Pennsylvania schools as a pilot program to welcome new students and to help with bullying prevention, Johnson said.