After the school year started with the deaths of two students, Whittier Elementary Principal Eric Remley has one goal: to get his students smiling again.

He is hoping that what will do the trick will be the district-wide Stand Together initiative that was introduced at Whittier during a news conference last week.

“[There have been] discussions throughout the district on how we can make sure that all of our students know how important they are to their school community and that there are resources available to help them deal with bullying, cyber-bullying, online dares and peer pressure in general,” Mr. Remley said as students sat on the floor before him and held banners around him.

Toledo Public Schools will again be marking October’s National Bullying Prevention Month with counselor presentations, guest speakers and other events. But there is a growing awareness that the peer pressure faced by today’s students is not just bullying and proactive steps are needed to make sure every TPS student knows he or she is valued.

That’s how the year-long Stand Together initiative came about, an initiative that was kicked off by Dr. Durant, Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson and others.

The message was a simple one: the students and staff of TPS must Stand Together to promote kindness and inclusion and combat bullying, dangerous online games and the other pressures threatening our children.

Mayor Hicks-Hudson re-arranged her schedule to be at the news conference because she wanted to deliver a message straight to the children.

“Everyone says children are our future. I want you to know that NOW is your time,” she said.

Whittier students displayed colorful hand-drawn banners with inspirational sayings such as 'Together as one and 'Keep calm and be kind.' Students also used sidewalk chalk to cover the cement in front of the school with similar messages.

Mr. Remley told the media that a key component of the Stand Together initiative is to have high school student leaders within TPS reach out to their classmates and younger children. Studies have found that ‘peer to peer’ conversations often have a greater impact than even when adults are counseling children.

Speaking at the news conference were Jones Leadership Academy sophomores Joshua Matlock and Arionna Witcher. They told the Whittier students about their own experiences being bullied when they were younger and how they found help and a purpose in the Young Men of Excellence Young Women of Excellence mentoring groups.

Also on board with the Stand Together initiative - and speakers at the news conference - were Danielle Cisterino, the coordinator of ProMedica's Teen PEP program and Tyler Kirian, a Start High School student who is a Teen Pep ambassador. The program – also known as Peers Educating Peers - involves youth in creating a positive environment where responsible decisions and respect are valued. The program is in several TPS high schools.

The last speaker at the news conference was Dr. Romules Durant, CEO/superintendent of Toledo Public Schools, who gave an impassioned speech to the Whittier students that they must decide to be leaders and support each other.

He talked of the chalk sidewalk messages in front of the school, about how if just one block would have been filled in, no one would have noticed the message. But with multiple blocks and multiple messages, people stopped and took notice.

"That's what I'm talking about - the power of the group is greater than one individual," Dr. Durant said.

A committee of educators started meeting last month to map out events for the new Stand Together initiative. These events are designed to promote kindness and inclusion -- and combat bullying, dangerous online games and other pressures threatening our children.

One of the first such events is a student-led evening of plays and speakers that will be held on Oct. 26th at Toledo Early College High School.

Several schools already have booked presentations of the Kindness Adventure, a 45-minute assembly that inspires kids to be kind-hearted and open-minded and to embrace kids who may be 'different' from them.

This assembly celebrates the best of Kenyan culture and has all the components that can help prevent bullying without referring directly to bullying. Raymer Elementary’s presentation is on Oct. 27th from 1:50 to 2:35 p.m. The school will also be paying it forward by assisting in funding a project in Kenya to raise money for a water well will that will be outside of Nairobi in the Maasai village. For the 10 days after the presentation, the students plan to sell Kenyan artists' jewelry to staff members and others to raise money for that project and others.

The Office of Positive School Climate is again hosting the Positively Pizza contest, which recognizes when students perform kind deeds or demonstrate the three Rs – Respect, Responsibility and Readiness. This contest encourages ALL TPS staff members to notice and nominate as many students from kindergarten through 12th grades as possible.

There will be a drawing on Nov. 10 for one winner at the high school level and two at the elementary school level. The student who wins at the high school level will get a pizza party for 10 friends. The winners at the elementary level will have pizza delivered for their entire class during their lunch hour. The pizza delivery will be on Friday, November 18.

Details are being finalized to put on the Beat the Streets play for each of the district’s learning communities. The play will be presented at each of the six traditional high schools, with students in grades 6th through 8th being bused to the high schools. This play – with actors from Michigan – is based on the book of the same name that chronicles how three New Jersey boys made a pact, telling each other at a young age they'd stay away from violence happening in their neighborhood and one day become doctors. In a few years all three of them succeeded.

The Office of Positive School Climate will again organize the TPS efforts for the national No One Eats Alone campaign in February. Groups of students at each school plan a campaign around the theme of ‘no one eats alone’ and the winning schools receive a banner to hang in their school.

A district-wide writing and art contest later this year will have the theme of Stand Together. Finally, there will be a Stand Together Walk to finish out the school year.

Posted on October 12, 2016