A caring, loving and accepting aura among students and staff permeated campus during Thursday’s “Heart to Heart” anti-bullying campaign at Christopher High School.
The school is only two weeks removed from a first-year transfer student being arrested on school grounds for his alleged involvement in the sexual assault, cyberbullying and suicide case of 15-year-old Saratoga High School student Audrie Pott.
But on this sunny afternoon, CHS students formed a united front against the growing epidemic of bullying with a message that it will not be allowed on their campus.
“The big thing is to stop bullying at Christopher,” said junior Jacob Garcia, 18, who spearheaded the event where students painted handprints on a large canvass symbolizing their pledge to combat bullying of any kind.
After grabbing the microphone in the middle of the lunch quad to address his fellow classmates and urge them to join in the fight against bullying, Garcia — telling students that “you’re actions speak louder than words” — handed things over to his friend, Maxx D’Elia, an 18-year-old transgender senior at CHS. D’Elia did not hold back, sharing the effects of being bullied throughout his childhood and teenage years. D’Elia said he suffered “physical, emotional, cyber and sexual” bullying that began as early as elementary school.
“I received text messages on a daily basis telling me to kill myself, that no one would care,” said D’Elia, who used to cut himself every night and showed where he had permanent scars. “I didn’t have anyone there for me. But now I have friends and a supporting family.”
D’Elia was not alone as several students stood up and gave their personal accounts of being bullied and the effects it had on them.
“He’s been so brave,” said school counselor Marah Kuwada, who is the advisor for Link Crew, a zero period class of juniors and seniors who reach out to incoming freshmen and help ease their transition into high school. “They’re leaders in the true sense…I feel like this campus is a safe place for kids.”
Kuwada said what makes her popular Link Crew class so effective is that the proactive group is made up of about 45 students who are “gay, athletes, artists, academic whizzes, cheerleaders and skateboarders” with numerous ethnicities represented so their message can impact different circles of students. Kuwada had 150 students apply for next year’s Link Crew and she can only accept 45.
But every CHS student was invited to take the pledge Thursday.
Students including freshmen Dalila Gonzalez and Jazmin Chilin, who is president of the anti-bullying, suicide awareness club at CHS; and freshman Lauren Pauley, 15, were among clusters of classmates and staff who filled the canvas with painted handprints and signatures.
“Everyone needs to stand up together,” said Pauley, who was a victim of bullying herself and did not want other victims to feel they are all alone.
Austin Corini, a 16-year-old junior at CHS known for performing on the FOX TV show, “X-Factor,” said he rarely witnesses any bullying on campus, but he knows it happens through text messaging and social media. He also said victims usually keep it to themselves and don’t share their ordeal with others.
Corini said he experienced cyberbullying and teasing as his “X-Factor” fame escalated.
A friend’s personal account of bullying and depression even inspired him to write a new single, entitled, “Don’t Go,” that will be released on iTunes in the next few days.
The three 16-year-old boys accused of assaulting Pott were released into the custody of their parents over the weekend, according to various news reports. The teen suspects, who are under house arrest, have returned to school, including one to CHS.
“It’s been pretty tense,” said Corini of having the accused student back on campus.
The difficult circumstances haven’t derailed Link Crew members from living the message, taken from Mahatma Gandhi and printed on the back of their bright pink shirts: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”