By Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School Director
The Westside School District is a model of the positive impact that an ongoing Not In Our School initiative can have. The district, located in California’s Antelope Valley, is in the fourth year of its NIOS campaign.
The district came together after teen suicides devastated nearby towns, an innovative solution that was documented in our 2012 PBS film, Class Actions
. This year the district faced another tragedy, when a distraught middle school student was found missing from his home, along with a firearm. His suicide sparked an immediate response from the district.
Even in the face of this tragedy, this caring community continues to strengthen their proactive anti-bullying stance while reflecting on how to improve school safety, create empathy, and find more mental health resources for the school and district. NIOS joined a panel in April that brought the community together to answer questions, share grief, and seek ways to move forward.
Local students and families as well as district counselors, teachers, and elected officials attended the forum. They listened as the local sheriff and the school principal explained the circumstances that led to locking down the school. “There are things that we should have done better, we did not do better, we did not do good enough,” Principal Robert Garza told the AV Times. “But from this experience, I expect our entire district and hopefully our neighboring districts to improve from our situation. It’s something we absolutely need to do.”
The principal also shared how students from Hillview organized a vigil and made blue ribbons to remember their fellow student. They will also be involved in more NIOS activities at their site.
A standing ovation for the principal demonstrated that the 300 people in attendance recognized his genuine concern for students, the care he took to keep his school safe, and his willingness to continue to work with local law enforcement to improve emergency practices.
Taking a firm and committed stance against bullying in the long term and bringing the school community together to work on problems when they arise creates a safe and supportive school environment. A school cannot prevent every act of bullying or forestall every tragedy. However, if they work together to build a trusting community, when things get tough, they will be able to remain unified and continue to move ahead.
Learn how you can create a sustaining Not In Our School campaign on your campus here. Watch how Antelope Valley created a citywide anti-bullying campaign in “A City Unites to End School Bullying."