Education Secretary Arne Duncan (center) with youth presenters and Becki Cohn-Vargas (far right).
By Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School Director
Youth leadership is a key part of Not In Our School anti-bullying initiatives, an aspect of our work that is showcased in our films and impressed the National PTA, who invited us to share promising practices for standing up to bullying at their National Youth Leadership Summit in June. We invited two Ohio students who appeared in our films to join us at the summit in Cincinnati.
Alana Garrett is a former high school student who led a student mentoring program in a local elementary school in an East Cleveland, OH inner city school district. Shawyawn Sekhavat is a student from Pepper Pike, OH who led a mapping activity at his school, which helped him gain confidence to speak up and stop bullying.
Both had been filmed in 2009 and I had never met them, nor did I know if I would even find them. The good news is that I found both Alana, a sociology major at Baldwin Wallace University, and Shawyawn, studying pre-med at Ohio University, and both were very enthusiastic about participating.
The Town Hall
The summit was part of the National PTA Annual Conference, which began with the filming of a Discovery Town Hall about bullying, the second of a four-part series that will be posted on the Discovery Channel Website.
The Town Hall featured a panel with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Kari Byron, co-host of MythBusters, together with Alana, Shawyawn, youth leader Tharon Trujillo from California, and Brent Burnham, a school counselor from Utah. Kari Byron outlined some of the myths of bullying and the youth shared their perspectives.
The final word was offered to Secretary Duncan, who turned and passed the opportunity to Alana. She made an eloquent plea to not approach bullying from a legalistic or punitive perspective, which would lead to stigmatizing and labeling students. Zero tolerance policies will not end bullying, she explained, but would instead lead to negative consequences particularly for black and brown students. She called for an approach that helps students learn from their mistakes and promotes love and creates empathy.
Youth participants came from many states and varied backgrounds. During the four-day summit, they heard a motivational speaker, and engaged in leadership skill-building. As part of the Summit, we conducted a workshop where attendees viewed Alana and Shawyawn on film, interacted with them in person, and learned about the activities and impact of NIOS campaigns.
The summit attendees worked in small groups to design and present a model anti-bullying campaign for their schools. It was inspiring to see how, in such a short time, the youth were able to absorb and innovate, drawing from what they experienced. A team of judges selected the top two groups to present to the National PTA Board.
Ideas from all the youth presentations will be used to develop models and planning guides that will be shared with PTAs across the country, who can move them into action.
It was an honor for NIOS to participate in this effort that highlighted our principles of student-led initiatives working with the whole community to address both bullying and intolerance in sustained efforts. It was also wonderful to meet Alana and Shawyawn who are both continuing to grow as individuals and leaders, committed to making the world a safer and better place.