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Taking a Kindness Challenge

Thu, 09/12/2019 - 13:52
Students from the Bridgehampton School signed a banner that read “I Accept Rachel’s Challenge,” signaling their participation in a program that promotes kindness.
Christine Sampson

In 2005, six years after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that left 12 students and one teacher dead and many others injured, Joe Pluta took a pledge called Rachel’s Challenge to help promote kindness, empathy, and positivity at the school he attended.

“It changed my life,” said Mr. Pluta, who graduated in 2007 from Shoreham-Wading River High School and became a special-education teacher at the Bridgehampton School a few years ago.

Rachel’s Challenge is named for Rachel Joy Scott, the first person killed by two gun-wielding students at Columbine. Rachel was known for her friendly personality, compassionate spirit, talent for writing, and wisdom seemingly beyond her years. Ever since then, her family has been on a mission to improve school culture across the country with the hope that similar tragedies can be avoided and altogether eliminated.

“When I was in high school, I wasn’t the popular kid. I wasn’t unpopular, but I wasn’t a fan of school,” Mr. Pluta recalled. Rachel’s Challenge “gave me a new outlook. It helped me break out of my shell. Eventually, I became student government president. You have to look into yourself, embrace the challenge, push forward, and create your own path.”

Mr. Pluta has since worked to get Rachel’s Challenge into the Bridgehampton School, and on Tuesday his own high school students — and those in all of the grades — got to experience what he had about 14 years ago.

And it left many of them in tears — speechless over what they’d just seen and heard.

Middle and high school students watched and listened to a short film consisting of not just photos of Rachel throughout her life, but also news footage from the Columbine shooting and a 911 phone call made by a teacher. Elementary school students got a much gentler version of the presentation, but the overall message, the five pillars of Rachel’s Challenge, was the same.

Those tenets are “choose positive influences,” “look for the best in others,” “dream big,” “speak with kindness,” and “start your own chain reaction.”

“It was tragic and sad, but the reason we’re still talking about Rachel is because of the way she lived her life,” said DeeDee Cooper, a friend of the Scott family who led Tuesday’s presentation. “She didn’t just write in her diary. She actually did all of these things.”

In an essay titled “My Ethics, My Code of Life” that was published after her death on April 20, 1999, Rachel wrote that “people will never know how far a little kindness can go.” She was known to reach out to new kids at school, as well as special-needs students and those who were picked on by bullies.

She is said to have been inspired by Anne Frank, the teenager who died in the Holocaust but kept a journal that has been widely read for decades, and by the writings of Martin Luther King Jr.

Words can both hurt and heal, Ms. Cooper said. “I challenge you to choose words that heal.”

Mr. Pluta thanked the school board for its support in bringing the program to Bridgehampton. “It shows they care about the school culture,” he said.

He called Rachel’s Challenge “sadly more relevant than ever.”

“Making changes and taking steps to making schools safer is important,” Mr. Pluta said, “but . . . if you start character development from a young age, by the time they’re in high school, they’re aware of it and it’s part of who they are.”

After the presentations, students signed their names on a banner that read “I Accept Rachel’s Challenge.” Later on Tuesday, the school held its first meeting of Friends of Rachel, a new student club intended to help get the word out.

“I’m pretty speechless. It was powerful,” Olivia Cassone, a senior, said after the middle and high school presentation.

Gylia Dryden, a junior, called it inspiring. “I’m going to leave here knowing that I can make a difference in the world,” she said.

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