Columbine tragedy spawns ‘Challenge’ at St. John Parish schools this week

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 19, 2011



LAPLACE – Rachel Scott died very young. She knew she would die young, but she also knew that her short life would leave a lasting impression on countless other lives across the globe.

Rachel was 17 when she died. She was a junior at Columbine High School in Colorado and the first victim in a deadly rampage at the school on April 20, 1999, in which two students shot and killed 13 of their fellow classmates before turning guns on themselves.

Six weeks before that shooting, Rachel wrote an essay that challenged her fellow students to perform an act of kindness that she hoped would start a chain reaction of kindness and compassion. That essay, along with the contents of her six diaries, became the foundation for an emotional school program that has impacted the lives of millions of students across the world.

Tuesday morning at LaPlace Elementary, students got their chance to take part in “Rachel’s Challenge,” an hour-long presentation designed to encourage students to change the way they see and treat others. Through stories about Rachel from family and friends, and excerpts from her diary, students were offered a lesson on what can happen when just one person goes out of their way to treat another with kindness and compassion.

“This program does not focus on stopping bullying in schools,” said speaker Todd Lauderdale, a friend of the Scott family who joined the “Rachel’s Challenge” team three years ago. “It is about starting that act of kindness chain reaction. We want to stress the value of doing the right thing and treating others with kindness and respect.”

Lauderdale said the program is the embodiment of the goal of Rachel’s essay. He said Rachel’s ambition was to trigger a kindness chain reaction that spanned the entire globe.

“It has already happened,” Lauderdale said. “We have taken the program across the nation and across the world to other countries. It has become the largest school assembly in the country with more than 80 presentations per school year.”

St. John Schools Superintendent Dr. Courtney Millet said the school system decided to bring the program to the parish as part of a proactive initiative that would change the way students treat each other throughout the day.

“We felt that we needed to look at the culture within the schools and the way students speak to each other and treat other,” Millet said. “We want to bring that sense of service and compassion for fellow students that Rachel clearly had in the hopes that it changes the way students think.”

LaPlace Elementary Principal Allison Cupit said the program couldn’t have come at a better time in that the students and faculty are about to move into a new renovated facility in December. That renovation pushed the presentation outside under the trees in the school’s front yard.

“We have a new school building and now we can have a fresh new attitude of kindness among the students,” Cupit said. “The students have dealt with the construction work like it isn’t even there and it showed today. They remained attentive and well behaved throughout.”

Following the program, a handful of students expressed their thoughts on the presentation and how they plan to follow through with “Rachel’s Challenge.”

“You shouldn’t judge people based on first impressions,” said sixth-grader Zyria Eugene. “You don’t know if that will end up being the last time you see that person.”

Henry Halland said the program made him think about how others are treated and said it will make him think twice about situations that could lead to bullying.

“We need to look into people’s souls and talk to them more,” he said. “We need to do what we can to put a stop to bullying because it only leads to trouble.”

The program is not just for students. Lauderdale said the Rachel’s Challenge Program is in St. John Parish all this week, with evening presentations that begin tonight at 6:30 p.m. at Emily C. Watkins Elementary.

“I encourage you all to come again and bring your parents and other friends,” Lauderdale said. “There is really no limit to the number of people we can reach with Rachel’s message.”

Other presentations will be Thursday at East St. John High School, Monday at West St. John Elementary, Oct. 25 at East St. John Elementary, Oct. 26 at Lake Pontchartrain Elementary and Oct. 27 at Garyville/Mt. Airy Math and Science Magnet School. All begin at 6:30 p.m.