After the shooting at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colorado, I knew something had to be done at my own school to ensure the emotional and physical safety of the 3,800 students at Cherry Creek High School. I took a number of steps along the path to enhance both.
Through my involvement with the City of Centennial's Youth Commission I was able to attend a nationally recognized School Emergency Preparedness training for two days with the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Department. I sat alongside school administrators and security personnel and officials from the sheriff's and fire departments and learned from research and experience, the best ways to secure a school. The trainers claimed it was the first time they had had students involved, but that we were an immense help for students bring perspective about their schools and the student body themselves that administrators don't always recognize. The two most important lessons I learned through the training were to be prepared for anything and to communicate well with the faculty and students, two things I knew could be improved at my large high school, which, interestingly enough, chose not to send any representatives to this particular training.
Taking what I learned from the training, along with my knowledge of my school's emergency procedures from meeting with administrators, I identified the most immediate needs in securing the physical safety of our student body. Cherry Creek High School needed to practice its lockdown with the students on campus, something every school in our area does but we never have, and it needed to again encourage students to use the district anonymous tip and support line called CARE.
I met with our director of security, Dean Brookhart, and the head security guard and explained to them the importance of lockdown drills and emergency preparedness. Mr. Brookhart told me he had attended many trainings and participated in many simulations and believed that all of it was "overkill." The statistics, he claimed, do not support a need to use valuable time for such drills. As I was sitting in his office, he received a phone call about yet another school shooting, this time in Washington. He sat back down, chuckling to himself, and remarked about how ironic the timing was, and then dismissed me.
I couldn't take no for an answer so I met with our principal and explained to her all that I had learned and the two most important things our school could be doing to protect its students. She appreciated my time and effort and was very glad I brought these to her attention. She herself had entirely forgotten about the CARE line and informed me that she was obligated by the district to make sure students had access to it but hadn't thought about it in years. She also told me she was glad I had brought the question of lockdown drills with students involved to her attention. She assured me it would be brought up and she would bring me back into her office should she need any more help.
Upon student check-in this fall, every student was given a magnet with an explanation and phone number for the care line in their student packet. I was so proud to see them distributed and I heard many students remark they had completely forgotten about the important phone line. My own freshman sister, without any encouragement from me, came home and put the magnet on our refrigerator. In October of last year, Cherry Creek High School held its first ever student involved lockdown drill. Again, I was comforted to hear students say they were glad the drill had taken place and felt more comfortable knowing the emergency procedures at the school they spend so much of their time at. I feel very safe walking on to campus every day and proud to know that I made a difference in my own level of safety at school.
I knew, however, that there is more to school safety than the physical security of students. A truly safe school would be a school in which students feel comfortable and supported by each other. The week of the Platte Canyon shooting, Oprah featured a program called Be the Change on her show. My mom recorded the segment, knowing it would be something I would like to be involved in. She was absolutely right. Be the Change is an organization committed to creating a school environment where every student feels "safe, loved, and celebrated." It is about having a school where students and faculty can connect, where no one feels alone or beyond help. It is a program that hopes to help students recognize that we all travel down rocky roads but that we can all support and learn from each other if we let ourselves. The next day, I brought the program in to our school's Activities Director, Jane Scott, to see how I could integrate it into our school.
With the help of Ms. Scott, I gathered together a small group of committed students and started meeting regularly. I explained the program to them, showed them a small committee, and got everything moving. We started by evaluating our school and its needs from our own perspectives. We talked about our feelings within the school, our experiences. Then we surveyed 400 more students about how they were feeling within our school. We took from their surveys that most students felt trapped by stereotypes and unconnected beyond small groups or cliques, but for the most part comfortable. We did, however, recognize that students who had not gotten involved yet, did not feel nearly as safe or comfortable as students who had. We made it our goal to help connect those students and show them that there are so many students and faculty within our school that would love to get to know them, to support them, and to, really, be their friend.
This year, three of us began again, devising a plan to help these students. Be the Change is based around something called a Challenge Day. We took this national concept of a Challenge Day and twisted it to fit the needs and desires of our school. In the last few months, we've planned out an entire afternoon for 75 students and teachers to connect with one another in a safe, encouraging, and focused environment. The three of us asked for teacher recommendations and got a group of 16 strong, connected, and dedicated upperclassmen to help us lead this day. Meeting weekly, we've showed these group leaders what Challenge Day will mean, how it will change our school, and how incredibly important this program could be. You can tell from the discussions we have been able to have about even simple icebreakers for our day that these 16 individuals have thrown their hearts into this program like I have.
Just recently, I was able to approve through our principal to hold Challenge Day on a school day, ensuring that students who would regularly chose not to participate because they don't like staying after school or cannot stay after school because of busing, can participate. We have compiled a list of teachers who connect well with students and would be a great asset to our day by showing students that teachers too can be great resources. We, within the weeks after winter break, will ask teachers to recommend students who would benefit from Challenge Day and will be holding the actual day in early February.
The change, however, will extend far beyond this day. We hope that in showing participants the importance of connections and kind words, we can create a ripple affect into the student body. We have secured a place on the wall to post the center of a puzzle we will have each participant contribute to during the day and let that be a reminder to them every day of what Be the Change means. We hope, with the competition of the first Challenge Day, we will be able to hold many more at Cherry Creek High School in the years to come. We also hope that we may be able to inspire nearby middle schools to use the tools of Challenge Day and the dedication of the Be the Change club at Cherry Creek to address issues at their level and help those students.
I have big hopes for Be the Change and I am so proud to see the ground we've already broken. We have a great few months ahead of us and hopefully we are about to make major change for the emotional safety of students here at Cherry Creek.