by Tori Hamby

Tragedies stemming from bullying frequently fill headlines.

But earlier this year, the death of Davidson teen Jocelyn Desmond – a Hough High School 17-year-old who committed suicide in March – brought the issue into the local spotlight.

Her death sparked a community conversation about bullying prevention while many schools in the Lake Norman region are implementing a national program meant to not only stamp out bullying, but also promote kindness.

The program, Rachel’s Challenge, named after Rachel Joy Scott, the first victim of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s 1999 shooting spree at Columbine High School that left 13 students and teachers dead. Rachel’s parents, Darrell and Sandy Scott, and brother, Craig Scott, formed the nonprofit about a year after her death.

Lake Norman Charter School kicked off its Rachel’s Challenge program about a year ago, while North Lincoln Middle School launches its program next month. Gaston County Schools opened the current school year by having all of its schools participate.

“It’s really just sharing Rachel’s message of kindness,” Dan Donnellan, a North Lincoln Middle guidance counselor, said. “Yes, it’s about bullying, but it’s also about teaching people to be nice to each other and giving students permission to be kind to one another.”

Rachel’s Challenge staff members travel to schools throughout the U.S. using an anti-bullying curriculum based on an essay the teen wrote about a month before her death. Rachel describes her personal “codes of life” in the two-page paper written for one of her classes.

“I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same,” Rachel wrote. “People will never know how far a little kindness can go.”

One of the first tasks of the school’s Friends of Rachel club – to be formed following the school’s assemblies and community presentation – will be to physically create that chain, Donnellan said. Every time a student carries out an act of kindness for another person, they will write down that act and add it to a paper chain that will be hung throughout the school.

“We hopefully will be able to physically see the impact that Rachel’s Challenge has at our school,” Donnellan said.

Mary Marinello, a high school Spanish teacher at LNC and advisor of the school’s Friends of Rachel club, said she thinks the program has helped maintain a positive atmosphere at the school. The club’s 20 members have spent the year promoting kindness through activities that include handing out orange ribbons in honor of National Anti-bullying Week.

Students spend part of this week writing positive messages, such as “you look good today” and “you are special” on the mirrors of the school’s bathrooms, Marinello said.

“It would be incorrect to say that there’s no bullying at our school, but I think overall we have a pretty positive atmosphere,” she said. “I think if you enforce these positive messages over and over eventually they will stick.”

Donnellan said that children live in an age where computers and cell phones can allow bullying to get out of control. Being able to hide behind a computer screen gives bullies a sense of anonymity impossible a few years ago.

Preliminary results from a survey he administered to his students showed that about half of the student body says they have been bullied at least one time in the past year, he said.

“Really, we just want to see a change in the school culture,” Donnellan said.

Jocelyn Desmond’s mother, Jaletta Albright Desmond, declined an interview with The Herald, but writes as a freelance columnist. A column she shared with The Herald urges people to look beyond labels and remember that a person lies behind each stereotype.

“People forget that there is so much more going on inside of each person,” Desmond wrote in an August column titled “Wear only one label – compassion.”

“They slash away at others who are different from them with their words, actions and attitudes, forgetting there are common bonds and shared emotions, no matter what someone looks like or where they sit at a lunch.”

Want to help?

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that a person dies by suicide every 15 minuets – that’s 36,000 people a year.

Charlotte will participate in one of the AFSP’s Out of the Darkness Community Walks 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Oct. 27 at Pineville Lake Park, 1000 Johnston Drive. Check-in begins at 10 a.m. and participants have until noon Oct. 26 to register. Donations will be accepted until Jan. 1.

Details: 704-685-1616, Rebecca.charlotteafsp@gmail.com or www.afsp.donordrive.com