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Jewish World Review March 13, 2001 / 18 Adar, 5761

Nancy Mitchell

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Consumer Reports

Student mentors aim to defuse bullies -- DENVER -- Freshman Jaxon Statzell, 15, doesn't hesitate when asked The Question.

What would you do if you heard another student was threatening to bring a gun to your Jefferson County high school?

"I'd tell John," he said, referring to an older classmate, senior John Fox. "I wouldn't tell a teacher or my parents."

Sam Welch, 14, Jaxon's classmate at Evergreen High School, quickly names two other seniors he'd tell.

"If you tell your parents, you're afraid you're going to get in trouble even if you didn't do anything," he said. "And you may not get along with your teachers."

Other students are better, the teens agreed, because, "They're in your school; they know what's going on."

Like it or not, many teens are more likely to talk to each other than to adults.

So what if the kids they talked to were trusted older students specially trained in violence prevention?

At Evergreen, 65 such students or "mentors" now roam the halls.

It's a key element of Mentors in Violence Prevention, one of several anti-bullying programs implemented in Jefferson County schools in the wake of the Columbine slayings.

Evergreen was picked to pilot the program this year, and the program is winning praise from students and staff. Six other area high schools are in various stages of training. Columbine High School, among its other efforts, also is looking at the program.

The program was created by Jackson Katz, a Long Beach, Calif., consultant who specializes in anti-harassment training for college athletes. He adapted it for high schools after being hired by Jefferson County 18 months ago.

At its core, the program gives students options for defusing bullying when they see it. Katz created a series of scenarios teens might encounter, such as seeing another student pushed into a locker. Options range from creating a distraction by dropping books to shouting, "Hey, what are you doing?," to asking a trusted adult for advice.

"We were trying to show kids it's cool to stand up for someone else," said mentor Stephanie Dufford, a 17-year-old junior. "It's not cool to not do something."

Kate Bergles, an assistant principal at Evergreen, said that last year, the school chose 65 juniors and seniors who agreed to be trained as mentors.

"They represented all different groups at the school, football players, student leaders, smokers, kids who hang out at the library, our one and only Goth," Bergles said. "I looked for kids who have some sort of influence in a group."

Mentors were assigned to groups of four or five incoming freshmen. They called the new students over the summer and met with them on the first day of school. Then, from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. every Tuesday during first semester, mentors met with their group to work through the scenarios and options created by Katz.

They talked about what to do if one student is spreading rumors about another, how to handle a party scene where a guy is trying to talk a drunken girl into a bedroom and how to deal with students calling others names.

Several Evergreen students said their initial skepticism about the program dissolved as the classes continued. Some mentors brought in doughnuts, or shared personal stories or made jokes to ease into the discussions.

"It made my first semester of high school easier," said freshman Annie Geminder, 15, who was new to Evergreen this year. "I admit I was a scared little freshman. I'm not really that person anymore."

Several students said the program is a better deterrent to school violence than alternatives such as metal detectors or locked doors. Mentor Caleb Kidney, 18, said he hoped the network of student eyes and ears would be able to spot a troubled student before the teen reached a breaking point.

He said that's particularly so because freshmen typically favored every other option available over that of telling parents or adults.

Nancy Mitchell writes for the Denver Rocky Mountain News Comment by clicking here.


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