Safer schools challenge spreads to middle schools

HARLINGEN — The message continues to spread.

Last year, Harlingen High School South initiated its “Rachel’s Challenge” program, engaging students in activities that encourage more communication among them.

Now it’s spread to Vela Middle School and Coakley Middle School.

“It’s so students are able to be more connected to each other,” said Joseph Villarreal, assistant superintendent for secondary education.

“That leads to a more comfortable and safer school environment for students because they know each other,” he said. “With the digital age, now students are not connected as much as they used to be and so we’re trying to bridge that gap.”

Rachel’s Challenge is a nationwide program aimed at promoting safer schools. It’s named after Rachel Scott, one of the students killed at Columbine High School in 1999.

“She was very specific about how one act of kindness could turn into multiple acts of kindness,” said Harlingen South Principal Fernando Reyes.

Villarreal said the program takes a look at the unique differences in each student.

“We need to celebrate our differences, we need to accept our differences,” he said. “So it’s about that promotion of that type of environment.”

He said social media does bring people into more contact with others, but that doesn’t allow them to know each other as well as they would through direct interaction.

“What you portray on social media isn’t sometimes who you are as a person,” Villarreal said. “Through basic interaction between students, that’s when you get to know someone. That’s what this program’s trying to do.”

Activities will involve learning how to meet people face to face.

“How do I shake another person’s hand?” he asked hypothetically. “How do I show the person that I’m interested in what they have to say?”

Villarreal said many students today have trouble with such interactions because so much of their socializing takes place through social media and texting.

“The most difficult for students is to shake each other’s hand and look at each other in the eye without being uncomfortable,” he said. “How do I have a conversation with someone else I don’t agree with or who has a different viewpoint?”

About Rachel’s Challenge

Rachel’s Challenge programs provide a sustainable, evidence-based framework for positive climate and culture in schools. Fully implemented, partner schools achieve statistically significant gains in community engagement, faculty/student relationships, leadership potential, and school climate; along with reductions in bullying, alcohol, tobacco and other drug use. Every year more than 1.5 million people are involved in Rachel’s Challenge programs.