What began as one educator’s effort to create a safer environment for her middle school campus has blossomed into a citywide movement. Next week, Lancaster, Calif. will promote an anti-bullying message geared at the city’s 50,000 students and will memorialize those lost to school bullying.
The city, at its Oct. 26 city council meeting, dedicated the week of Nov. 15-19 to the Not in Our Town Citywide Anti-Bullying program. During the first days of the week, 200 student ambassadors from the four primary and secondary Lancaster school districts will conduct anti-bullying activities at their 20 home campuses. Students will perform a musical dramatization, "Darkness to Light Memorial Service," at the Lancaster Performing Arts Center on Nov. 17.
The strength of the anti-bullying program, according to counselor Lauri Massari, lies in student involvement. Massari, an educator with nearly 30 years of experience, launched the program at Del Sur Middle School last year. She tapped students in her True Leaders program, which focuses on peer instruction.
“Kids create change on campus, not adults,” she says. “Kids create the culture that’s important to them.”
The data confirms Massari’s assertion. At the beginning of the school year, 62 percent of Del Sur Middle School students reported feeling safe on campus, according to the school’s Support Personnel Accountability Report Card. By the end of the year that figure jumped 30 percent to 92 percent.
Westside Union School District superintendent Regina Rossall attributes this to the “change of culture relative to bullying.”
Prior to the program’s implementation, Rossall said many students overlooked how critical bystanders are in perpetuating bullying. The program helped students understand they were condoning bullying by not responding and how they could be part of the solution.
The program, Massari admits, is not without its naysayers, who include those who question the boldness of addressing suicide. But for Lancaster, bullying is not something citizens can ignore.
In 2008, 15-year-old Jeremiah Lassiter shot himself in a school bathroom in Acton, Calif., and in September, 13-year-old Seth Walsh’s hanging attempt turned fatal after nine days on life support in Tehachapi, Calif., according to news reports. Both towns are within 50 miles of Lancaster.
Though not the impetus for the program, Massari says these tragedies resonated in the community. “We’re shocked because it’s just so close to us,” she says.
Rossall encouraged Massari to push the program forward, believing the student-centered student-ambassador program focused on anti-bullying could be replicated and interpreted by other schools.
The school community recognizes the seriousness of these issues. “We need to have a frank conversation about the impact it has,” Rossall says. “I think our kids are going to be the beneficiaries.”
Not In Our Schools: One community inspires another
Two summers ago, Massari was flipping through channels in a Palo Alto, Calif. hotel room while her son was at Stanford baseball camp. She happened to catch coverage of Palo Alto Unified School District’s Not In Our Schools program. Each year, the district hosts Not In Our School Palo Alto, a month-long event where the school community engages in activities and discussions about addressing hate, bullying and harassment.
Massari had been brainstorming ways to begin an anti-bullying program and was sold. She launched a Not In Our School program with her True Leaders students the next school year.
Along with students leading anti-bullying lessons in middle school classrooms, students also took a big hand in developing the musical dramatization, “Darkness to Light: A Community United Against Bullying,” which memorializes seven pre-teens and teens who committed suicide as a result of bullying.
The dramatization stems from Massari’s efforts to “appeal to my students to raise their level of awareness in a heartfelt way.” The students researched the lost and were invited to interpret their stories. They perform each of the seven roles in the first person.
When the True Leaders performed the memorial, they received positive feedback and were urged to continue. One city leader, Rossall says, called the program important, moving, and timely.
Not long after the memorial performance, the Westside Union School District partnered with the city and its four neighboring districts, Lancaster, Eastside Union, and the Antelope Valley Union High School District.
Likening it to the program’s fortuitous beginning when she caught the Palo Alto program on television, Massari says, “Every bit of this program has happened this way. The right people have been there at the right time. Wherever I go, there seems to be all these people who support these programs.”
For more information on True Leaders, a Not In Our Schools group, visit their group page here. To attend the Darkness to Light Memorial on Nov. 17, visit the event’s Facebook page here.
Photos of Darkness to Light Memorial Service performed last year by Del Sur Middle School students, courtesy of Lauri Massari.
Not In Our Schools Video, Palo Alto: Students Tune In and Speak Out