A challenging assembly

On April 20, 1999, the worst school shooting in United States history occurred at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado. The shooting resulted in the deaths of 14 students, a teacher, as well as the injuries of 24 others. While this tragic incident caused the devastation of many, out of it came a program dedicated to promoting compassionate behavior among high school students. Rachel’s Challenge is a program inspired by the life of Rachel Scott, the first victim of the shootings at Columbine. Scott, a junior in high school at the time, had written an essay one month prior to her death where she challenged others “to start a chain reaction of kindness and compassion.” Following her death, her family used her message to develop five goals for students, which are presented as part of the program in a 45 minute assembly in high schools across the nation. This assembly was presented to Ames High on Sept. 12. A similar presentation was given to parents and leaders in the community the evening of the presentation. The goals included were eliminating prejudice by looking for the best in others, daring to dream and setting goals—keeping a journal, choosing influences, using kind words, and starting a chain reaction with family and friends. “I found out about the assembly at a high school principal’s conference in Arizona, where it was presented to thousands of principals, it had already serviced over 3 million students” Ames High principal Michael McGrory said. “I brought it to Ames High because I thought it had a strong message about compassion and caring for each other. Also, I wanted students to see how much power they have, and that they can really have a positive impact.” According to the program’s website, www.rachelschallenge.com, the assembly is meant to “create a desire for positive change.” It appeared, however, to initiate a variety of emotions around Ames High. “The assembly was kind of like a reality check. It made me think to tell people that I care about them,” senior Hiwot Abebe said. Some other students felt that the overall message was undermined by religious undertones in the presentation. The presentation discussed Scott’s premonition of an early death, and hinted at the fact that she might have foreseen that a tragedy was about to strike Columbine High School. “The message was good, but it would have been a lot more effective if they’d left out suggestions about her powers. They made her seem almost like a religious figure,” senior Aaron Jacobson-Swanson said. “They tried to appeal to the superstitious.” McGrory stated, though, that any religious undertones were not intentionally introduced. “Anytime you have something that is emotional you kind of lose control of how people interpret it,” he said. “We obviously wouldn’t purposely bring in something that promotes religion.” He went on to say that to him the assembly presented Scott as an “ordinary kid who could have an impact,” and that the purpose of the assembly was to “plant a seed” in helping students to be compassionate. Social studies teacher Chad Zmolek felt that the assembly sent mixed signals. “The message wasn’t clear; it seemed to confuse some of the students in my class.” He went on to say that with very little follow up assemblies “can sometimes be futile.” The key to having an actual effect is to “go out into the community; show students how to help and be a part of the community.” What is most important, he said, is “consistency and changing words into true actions.” This consistency is what the program strove for in its final step at Ames High. The assembly was followed by a 45 minute training session consisting of around 30 students. The intention of this training session was to form a club dedicated to implementing the five goals, keeping up the momentum created by the assembly. “It would be a leadership opportunity, open to anyone interested, aimed at promoting the five goals,” McGrory said.