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High school fights violence through talking

"High school vice principal Eric Nerison talks with sophomore peer mediator Michael Berry before class. Both Nerison and Berry are trying to change the atmosphere of the school to help students to be more accepting and less likely to commit violent acts.Matt Johnson / staff photoSee the videoParents and other community members who wish to see the MTV Warning Signs video can do so tonight, April 25, at the South Whidbey High School Auditorium. The video will be shown during a two-hour forum starting at 7 p.m. After the half-hour video, school staff and students will lead a discussion about how to spot the warning signs of violent behavior and where to get help.During a week in which the nation marked the second anniversary school shootings in Columbine, Colo., students at South Whidbey High School were learning to listen to one another.Keying in on the fact that school violence often stems from bullying, teasing, or a lack of tolerance, students did some talking during their third-period classes last week about how to determine if a classmate might be a danger to himself or others. They also talked about how each student can prevent others from feeling the rejection and depression cited as the root cause of many incidents of school violence around the country.To get the students talking, Island Mental Health counselor Charlene Suzuki and high school assistant principal Eric Nerison brought groups of a few hundred students into the school's auditorium over three days to watch Warning Signs, a joint production about school violence by the American Psychological Association and MTV. Then on Friday, students watched a live stage show by the Tribes Project, a traveling student theater group dedicated to teaching diversity and tolerance.Nerison said activities like these can do more to make South Whidbey High School safe than metal detectors at the doors and police in the hallways. Students who like and care about one another, he said, make sure no student feels rejected and hateful toward his schoolmates.This relates more toward working on the climate of the school, he said.Since last fall, students have gotten involved in a number of climate changing activities. The school established a peer mediation program, kicked off a drug, alcohol and violence prevention curriculum, sent a group of students to a diversity training summit, and started a chapter of Students Against Violence in Education (SAVE). Megan Roosen-Runge, a freshman peer mediator, said the programs are changing the school's climate. She sat in on the MTV production Wednesday, then helped Nerision conduct a classroom discussion afterwards. The video, she said, made an impression. It's not what they expected, Roosen-Runge said. It really blew them away. In the video, an MTV personality interviews a teenager who shot and killed a classmate and his school principal. Also interviewed are friends of a boy and girl who committed suicide in their school, and a young man who decided to live after coming within a hair's breadth of taking his own life. In each story, at least one person knew there was a potential for violence, but said nothing. After Wednesday's showing, several students talked about the video in a high school math classroom. One student said the students at South Whidbey High School should not consider themselves immune to school violence. Nerison, who led the discussion, said this is an important realization.The first school in the video was a real podunk school, he said, drawing a comparison with South Whidbey High School.Senior Brandon Hern saw the video's message of looking for warning signs as an important theme. He said it is only logical that students pushed to their emotional breaking point are more likely to commit an act of violence.You get beat every day by your dad, you're going to want to beat somebody else, he said.Several students in the class said they would feel uncomfortable ratting on a friend who says something about shooting classmates or killing himself.Even if it is one of your friends, you can never be sure if it's a joke or not, said one girl.After the discussion period was over, Roosen-Runge said she hopes peer mediators like her will make it unnecessary for her fellow students to feel a conflict about speaking up. She said she and the other mediators are there for students who need to talk.I think I'm a lot more open to talking to anyone who's down, she said.So far, the school seems to have a good climate to build upon. Nerison said he can think of only three fights that have occurred at the school this year, which leads him to believe that South Whidbey High School is not a particularly violent place.The school's anti-violence work is boosted by other schools in the district. The primary, intermediate, and middle schools have their own peer mediation programs, and the middle school may soon have its own SAVE chapter, Nerison said. He and Suzuki will also share the MTV video and anti-violence lessons with students at Bayview High School. "

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