Issaquah schools get creative to bolster ‘culture of kindness’ ideals
August 26, 2014
By Neil Pierson
Kym Clayton has a child who struggles with social skills and speech delays, and in her quest to find help, she stumbled across an idea from a suburban school in Pennsylvania.
Christian Bucks, a student at Roundtown Elementary School in York, Pa., invented a simple but effective way of helping children who were feeling sad or lonely. His Buddy Bench concept — a bench where kids can sit when they’re in need of a friend — has spread like wildfire in less than a year, reaching schools around the world.
Clayton believed the Buddy Bench might be a useful tool at Sunny Hills Elementary School, where she was PTSA president during the 2013-14 school year.
But simply going to a local hardware store and building a bench wasn’t what she had in mind.
“I think it would be really neat to be full circle, that kids are building this bench for other kids,” she explained.
That’s where Patrick Ford, Alejandro Calderon and Jade Griffiths come in. Ford, a longtime industrial arts teacher at Beaver Lake Middle School, received an email from Clayton asking if he’d be interested in building the bench.
Ford, who also coaches wrestling, reached out to his team captains at Beaver Lake. Two eighth-graders, Calderon and Griffiths, answered the call and helped Ford build the bench at the school’s woodshop in just a few days. Cooper McBride, an Issaquah High School student, also contributed to the project by engraving a “Buddy Bench” sign.
When the bench was presented to Sunny Hills at a June assembly, the Beaver Lake students were in attendance and got to share in the joy.
“I thought it was great — they seemed to like it, so that made me happy,” Griffiths said.
The middle-schoolers think the Buddy Bench is an age-appropriate tool.
“Older kids actually might just abuse it,” Calderon said, “but younger kids could really take the opportunity and use it to make more friends and just be nicer to people.”
“In fifth grade, I moved here, and it was kind of hard to make friends at first … so in fifth grade that would’ve helped,” Griffiths added.
Ford noted the bench got immediate use.
“You don’t really want to see it get used, but it’s nice that it’s there and can be used,” he said. “It has already made an impact just the short time it’s been there.”
Coincidentally, Sunny Hills may have gotten a bench through a different route. Evan Baker, a fourth-grade student, found out about buddybench.org and had approached Principal Leslie Lederman late in the school year.
The school wasn’t publicizing Clayton’s effort at that point since she wasn’t sure it would come to fruition, so Baker wasn’t aware. But he was invited to get involved, and spoke about the bench’s importance at the June assembly.
“It was neat to be able to have another kid within our school want to see it built, rather than an adult just assuming it would be a good need,” Clayton said.
Issaquah High School throws ‘May Madness’ for a loop
In 2013, Issaquah High School made national news for the wrong reasons. Unknown individuals created a “May Madness” contest — similar to the annual March Madness college basketball brackets — to determine the school’s “hottest” female student.
The contest had been happening for a few years, but when its notoriety went nationwide, it struck a chord among the student body.
Kimmy Lum, an incoming junior who served as the sophomore class president, said the contest reflected poorly on the school. But she also felt it wasn’t representative of most Issaquah students.
“There’s always going to be that select few individuals who make poor choices and who are just insensitive to others’ feelings,” Lum said.
One of the major problems with the contest was that it targeted girls who didn’t want to be part of it.
“I feel like it is degrading to other girls,” Lum said. “…We’re insecure and we’re afraid of (not being) accepted. I think we get too caught up in worldly values and expectations that we kind of forget about being ourselves.”
Issaquah School District Superintendent Ron Thiele said many district officials were “disgusted” by the contest, but because it was being conducted through Facebook and networks the district had no control over, there was little that could be done to shut it down.
“We learned that, really, the best thing for us to do was do what we do best: Do an education campaign and really try to educate the kids on how this is making people feel, the negative impact, the negative view that it is giving people of your school,” Thiele said.
This year, student leaders formed a response. Using the May Madness moniker — a controversial choice, Lum said — they used the entire month to stage community events focused on kindness, respect, charity and inner beauty.
Among the numerous activities were a visit from motivational speaker Phil Boyte, who touched on the importance of kindness, service and finding an inner passion. The workshop allowed students to voice their opinions about schoolwide problems and potential solutions, and “kindness dares” challenged students to do things like give compliments or pick up trash from someone else’s lunch table.
There was also an emphasis on service — students gave financial support to the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life and Issaquah’s YWCA Family Village.
Lum said the entire month served its purpose — making respect, integrity and service top priorities throughout the school, and rewriting the negative May Madness narrative from the past.
She said she believes the school has a strong, inclusive climate, but there are always ways to make it better.
“I think May Madness was a good idea,” she said. “We would definitely want to continue to make respect, integrity and service our top priorities, whether it would be through May Madness or doing a different, similar event.”
“I’ve gotten compliments from people who I wouldn’t normally interact with, or who I know of, but not personally,” she said. “I see people give high-fives in the hallways, and I don’t necessarily see anyone being mean.
“I know it does exist. Bullying does exist. You can’t really stop bullying from happening at all, I guess, because there’s always those select few individuals in a 2,000 (student) population.”
‘Culture of Kindness’ is infiltrating schools
Thiele became a school administrator in the mid-1990s, right on the heels of a number of high-profile shootings, including the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado.
Those events, he said, set off a firestorm of questions among school officials: What is causing students to act violently? How can they get they get help before it’s too late?
Thiele joined the Issaquah district as a principal in 2001, and when he took over the superintendent’s post last summer, he immediately laid out his top three priorities: make schools cleaner and more sustainable; improve safety and security; and usher in a “Culture of Kindness” that can positively impact students of all ages.
He compared schools during testing periods to accounting offices during tax season — there’s a need for stress-reducing activities that can make the classroom more conducive for learning.
“School can be kind of a stressful place. We expect a lot from kids and from our staff,” he said. “… If kids feel cared for at the school, even if we have high expectations for them, I just think you’re more likely to get that desired outcome than if it’s all just regimented and feels hard.”
Within the past year, each of Issaquah’s 25 schools have found ways to implement that Culture of Kindness. Sunny Hills built its Buddy Bench. Issaquah High School held its revamped May Madness. Others used “kindness pledges” to foster friendships.
Officials said it’s too early to tell whether the Culture of Kindness ideals have reduced disciplinary incidents such as suspensions and expulsions, but it’s quite possible the number of harassment and bullying cases will rise.
“All of a sudden, you see an influx of the thing we just trained for,” said L. Michelle, the district’s executive director of communications. “If we’re calling it harassment, all of a sudden you see an uptick in harassment.”
Thiele said that occurred several years ago at Beaver Lake Middle School after administrators emphasized the importance of students reporting negative behavior.
“It looked kind of bad for Beaver Lake,” Thiele said, “and I had to explain to the board, ‘No, actually I think this is a good thing.’ I think they have empowered their students.”
Schools are using some new programs that go hand in hand with the focus on kindness.
In the district’s nine middle schools and high schools, students will be able to anonymously report problems through an online system called Quick TIP. It replaces a similar system, Talk About It, that Issaquah schools implemented midway through the 2013-14 year.
Quick TIP will be in place for the start of the 2014-15 school year, and officials hope it will be utilized more than its predecessor because there’s no username requirement, and no way for a student’s identity to be exposed.
“As much as you want to promote a culture of kindness and coming to talk to a trusted adult, you still need to have that mechanism in place by which somebody can anonymously say there’s something going on,” Michelle said.
The district will continue partnering with Swedish Medical Center to provide mental health counselors at its comprehensive high schools, and with Friends of Youth to supply counselors for families with substance-abuse issues.
Schools continue to send anti-drug messages, but their fight may be tougher now that Washington’s stance on marijuana has changed.
“Now, we’ve got another legal drug that is illegal to our kids,” he said. “To me, the message is the exact same message that it’s always been: It’s no different than alcohol. You’re not 21. Our schools are not a place — whether you’re 21 or not — where you can be using drugs and alcohol.”