For the first time, St. John Regional Catholic School students joined their peers at Frederick County Public Schools and across the country to participate in the national Start With Hello Week, a youth violence prevention program sponsored by the nonprofit group that formed after the deadly 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Start With Hello Week, which officially ran this year from Sept. 24 to Sept. 28, aims to provide schools across the country with the resources to prevent and address student violence that may be caused by isolation. The program provides information on bullying and depression, aiming to help schools become closer and more connected.
“A lot of people can feel alone even when they are with others,” St. John Assistant Principal Ryan Hellem said to students during a presentation Tuesday. “You need to take it upon yourself to find someone, to notice if someone is acting differently. It is up to you to make that difference.”
The program comes at no cost to schools and provides ideas for engagement, participation, presentations and resources for schools who choose to participate. Using the program’s materials, Hellem took time to demonstrate how a student might approach another student, and the barriers students feel in talking to someone new or to someone who is socially isolated.
Students said they might not approach another student who is outside of their typical circle of friends because it can feel uncomfortable or awkward, and they might not know what to say. But Hellem had two students stand up in front of the school and model a possible conversation. He suggested some ice breakers and ways to continue the conversation.
St. John students wore nametags and older students were tasked with saying hello to younger students who they’d never spoken to before.
Nate Neubauer, an eighth-grade student at St. John, said he was bullied himself when he was in the first grade at a different school. Neubauer said he was given a fifth-grade peer mediator who became a mentor to him during that difficult time. Now, he hopes to do the same for younger students at St. John.
“If I say their name, they are going to be super happy. They are going to feel like, ‘Oh my goodness, an eighth grader knows my name,’” Neubauer said. “I was bullied a lot, so something like this would have made me extremely happy.”
From what he knows about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, where 26 students and staff were killed inside the Newtown, Connecticut, school, Neubauer said he believes small acts of kindness like those being encouraged through the Start With Hello week could play a role in preventing something like that from happening again at schools nationwide, and even at his own school.
“This isn’t as obvious when you’re talking about school safety,” Hellem said in an interview after the event. “You’re talking about lockdown drills and avoid, deny, defend. But this is about getting to the root of the problem, addressing bullying and isolation. Getting students aware of this is the first step because teachers and administrators are aware, but students are the ones who see this in their daily lives.”