Two weeks ago, about 275 Riverside-Brookfield High School students spent an entire school day in the school’s field house. They weren’t listening to lectures or learning from books. Rather they were participating in a workshop designed to combat bullying by promoting inclusiveness and respecting diversity.
The day was also designed to build leadership skills among the students, who either volunteered for the workshop or were encouraged to participate by teachers and other school officials.
As students walked into the field house they were randomly divided into 24 small groups of about 10 to 12 students each. In their groups they tossed tennis balls, tried to transport marbles in small tubes across the field house, and maneuvered tennis balls on a string into a bucket.
The activities were designed to break down barriers and build cohesiveness. Because students were randomly assigned to their small groups, most only knew a few of students in their groups.
Each group had an adult facilitator, either an RBHS teacher or an employee of the company that ran the workshop and led the small-group discussions throughout the day. After each discussion session, one or two members of each group would present suggestions that the group came up with to the rest of the participants.
“I really liked it,” said junior Alyssa Monti said. “I thought it was overpowering to be together with all these people who you’ve never really talked to before.”
Senior Jonathan Wells liked it as well.
“It definitely brought this group of people a lot closer, and I think it’s really going to impact RB in a lot of ways that we don’t know,” Wells said. “There are going to be a lot of ways that we’re going to be able to help not only our school, but the community as well.”
Within the small groups one frequent topic of conversation was how to reach out to people you don’t know and who might seem different to you. The overriding message from the workshop was that “we all belong” and conservation centered on breaking down barriers.
“I’m probably going to be more outgoing in terms of just saying hi to that one person I’ve been wanting to say hi to or maybe like saying how much I love that one’s person’s shirt or their dress, stuff like that,” Wells said.
One activity called “cross the line” showed students how many of them had experienced similar issues, ranging from bullying to discrimination to depression.
“I learned a lot about standing up with other people and that other people are willing to stand up with you,” said freshman Annalisa Cinkay.
The theme of the day, repeated in occasional chants, was to “stand up and speak out.” Students were encouraged to be leaders and to step in to stop bullying by others instead of being a silent bystander.
“I think it is actually helping us become leaders and helping us improve the way we act, becoming more open to new things and meeting new people,” said sophomore Mary Brosnan.
Some who began the day ambivalent about the workshop said that they were pleasantly surprised and found it worthwhile.
“I think I’ve learned a lot and improved my leadership skills,” said sophomore Elina Kunickas. “I came in here kind of skeptical, not knowing what it was, but I met some people and it’s been fun.”
The workshop had its roots in discussions administrators had with a group of activist students late last year, following controversies over racist graffiti being found in a girls bathroom and a decision not to rehire a popular teacher.
Ironically, at the same time the workshop was going on, a girl in another part of the building confessed to writing the racist graffiti in a bid to gain attention.
The workshop was put on by a Chicago-based company named, ironically, Bulldog Solution. The company has no connection to RBHS, and was paid $6,000.
The money came from a grant, RBHS Principal Kristin Smetana said. The RBHS Parent Teacher Organization also contributed $500 to defray costs.
One of the students who was involved in the discussions with administrators last year said she liked the workshop.
“I thought it was interesting to see that RB is taking steps to, you know, eliminate intolerance and hate speech,” said senior Tosi Olowu. “I actually learned that we’re not really different.”
But not everyone thought the workshop went far enough.
“I thought it was a great start for further addressing social issues at school, but I do wish it kind of blatantly called out some of the issues we’re facing right now, like racism,” said senior Casey Whisler. “I want more direct addressing of issues instead of using bullying as a vague term.”
Assistant principals Dave Mannon and Kylie Lindquist played the largest roles in hiring the firm and organizing the day.
Mannon said he hoped the workshop empowers students to speak up about issues and be proactive in connecting with students who might not otherwise be involved in school life. Mannon has been having regular meetings, about once a month, with student leaders this year to listen students’ concerns.
“This isn’t going to stop here,” Mannon said. “It’s a continuing discussion.”
As the workshop came to an end, Lindquist and Smetana addressed the students. Smetana encouraged students to come to the administration with ideas as to how to improve the school.
“We want to empower you,” Smetana said. “This is your school. We want to make sure you have the best experience possible.”