After three weeks at Sunset Ridge Middle School, one young girl received a cruel welcome.
A nameless bully placed a Post-it note on her back that read, "Caution: Wide Load." She discovered the note, missed her bus and came to school counselor Julie Scherzinger's office sobbing.
When the West Jordan teen left Scherzinger's office earlier this month, the counselor sent text messages to 24 student ambassadors, told them about the situation and encouraged them to take a stand.
And that's exactly what the student leaders did.
Throughout the evening, students frantically exchanged texts and Facebook posts about the bullying incident. The next day at school, more than 1,000 students stood up against bullying by covering themselves and the school with Post-its that read "Not in our school," "Stop the hate" and "Time to change."
The day's event was an unplanned part of the school's new three-year Falcons Against Bullying (FAB) program, which began in the 2011-2012 school year. Each year has a theme, which educators hope will play a role in the overall goal of reducing bullying on school campuses. Last year educators promoted empathy, this year they are emphasizing respect, and next year students will learn how to celebrate diversity.
The program includes a phone line that students can text to report bullying to the counselor's office a novel approach that school leaders hope will encourage students to report bad behavior by their peers without the pressure of being spotted by their friends talking, in person, about such incidents with a teacher or principal.
"We need to communicate with students the way they communicate, and they all text," Scherzinger said. Last year the office received more than 100 reports of bullying through the text line, she said. School officials investigated the reports and disciplined students if the situation warranted intervention.
But besides calling attention to bad behavior, teachers at the school are also encouraging students to report their peers behaving kindly.
During the second half of the year, students can text the counselor's office to report good behavior. The reward for students if they go out of their way to help a classmate in need? The possibility of being nominated as student ambassadors, who work to promote understanding and inclusion among peers.
So far, the school's initiatives have caught the attention of students, said 14-year-old student ambassador Connor Rickards, one of the students elected by teachers to serve as a student ambassador.
Rickards was horrified when he learned about his classmate who was tagged with the Post-it.
"I couldn't believe that someone would do that to anyone," he said.
But disappointment was replaced by pride when he watched his classmates respond with a protest the next day.
"Everybody in our whole school came together," he said. While he didn't know the bullying victim, he said he and others at the school will continue to stand up for those like her in the future.
"Why not?… I would want someone to do that exact same thing for my sister [if she were bullied]," he said of standing up for the classmate.
Another student ambassador, Caitlyn Allgrunn, agreed with Rickards. "We needed to be there for her," she said. "I was amazed that a whole school could [come] together with something so big and support her so much even though we didn't know her."
Efforts at Sunset Ridge Middle School complement other student initiatives in the Jordan School District to end bullying.
Seniors Andrew Johnson and Tate DeHaan at West Jordan High wanted to make a difference, so they wrote and produced their own three-minute video short called "Be You" that coincidentally also features Post-its and bullying.
The video shows a high-schooler being pummeled with Post-its or "labels," but he learns to shake off the labels and creates his own Post-it that reads "Me."
"Regardless of what people think of us," Johnson said, "what we think of ourselves matters so much more."
DeHaan said the video is about the importance of just being yourself, and he was "touched" to hear about what happened at Sunset Ridge Middle School. "[I'm] inspired to know there's a lot of people on the same planet as me who support their fellow students in being not bullied anymore," he said.
Scherzinger said that students at Sunset didn't know who the bullying victim was, but she caught the girl beaming and overwhelmed by student support the day her peers protested the Post-it note. In the end, Scherzinger said, not only did the victim gain help, but also the bully was caught when his friends decided to tell school officials about his actions.
Johnson said he knows that bullying at school won't automatically stop. The only way to eliminate the problem, he said, is to inspire people one by one to join together in the cause, which he and others are committed to promoting.
"We just want people to be inspired enough to make a difference," he said. "Be true to who you are."
At a glance
The text message sent school-wide at Sunset Ridge Middle School • "FWD: FWD: Today at school someone stuck a sticky note on another student's back that said CAUTION! WIDE LOAD. This student is a brand new student to SRMS. LET'S TAKE A STAND AGAINST BULLYING! FORWARD THIS MESSAGE to all of your SRMS friends, tell them to stop by the counseling center tomorrow before school and we will hand out sticky notes for you to wear that says TAKE A STAND AGAINST BULLYING. Let's see how many students will take the challenge!"