‘Peer Helping’ inspires students to show respect

Roseville High School students learn peer counseling and more during elective class
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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During an activity at Roseville High School, a teacher read a statement directed only to female students. This group stood on one side of a thick black line and their male counterparts stood opposite. The teacher asked the girls to walk to the line if they have ever felt not pretty enough. There were about 100 of them, and every single girl moved forward. “It’s going to make me cry,” said teacher Valerie Erb, choking up at the sight. “I wish I could get you to see who you are.” This was one of several emotional moments during a Peer Helping assembly at Roseville High School May 11. Two hundred freshmen and sophomores assembled in the gymnasium for this event to recap lessons learned during the year and solidify key messages. Four sessions were held throughout the day. Peer Helping is an elective class open to all ninth through 12th-graders, designed to teach students the process of helping another person. The students learn peer leadership, peer counseling, conflict management, peer mediation, team building and other interpersonal skills. Central to helping other teenagers is respect — both for one’s self and others — and that word was regularly repeated throughout the assembly. Erb established the program at Roseville High School in 2007 after being hired to teach English. “It’s been really wonderful, really fulfilling,” she said. Erb teaches three classes, each with at least 40 students. She said the course works best when it includes a wide range of students, such as at-risk teenagers, jocks, academic achievers and those with special needs. Each year, the program starts with an anti-bullying message when teenagers pass around a microphone and complete the statement, “If you really knew me,” similar to the reality MTV series of the same name. Through this exercise, students attempt to break down barriers, reveal their own truth and learn to respect one another because “everyone has scars, but we wear them differently,” as Erb says. “Keep that in mind and then we can change our campus from the inside out,” Erb told the students during the assembly. A video showed these students’ responses to “If you really knew me, you’d know” — a student’s mom died when she was young, a guy grew up with an abusive father, one girl struggled with anorexia, another student was molested by two family members. Senior Mandy Strobridge reminded her peers about a clay heart exercise they did when students tore the heart apart to show how words hurt. “We’ve all had our hearts ripped apart … we can be the people to build those hearts back up,” she said. Senior Drew Tawlks told the group that as an athlete he was pressured to take steroids. Instead, he made a pact with friends to avoid the substance. “I think the most successful thing to reach your goals in the future and do what you want is surrounding yourself with positive people,” he said. During the assembly, speakers talked about changing each other’s lives for the better, especially in an era of increased concern over cyber bullying and suicides among kids who were allegedly bullied. Since Peer Helping launched, the school’s climate has improved and surveys show students feel safer on campus, Erb said. The class also encourages students to feel safe to share their concerns and feelings, and to see their similarities and differences, hence the line crossing activity. During that exercise, Erb read a few dozen statements, which included “If you’ve ever been teased at school for the way you look,” “for the color of your skin” or “for being too fat or skinny.” About a dozen students walked to the line for those who have never met either of their biological parents. About half of the 200 students acknowledged being physically or verbally abused at home. Nearly 100 students walked forward to show they had been pressured sexually. Dozens of students approached the line when asked who had struggled with drug abuse. Senior Thomas DesRosier challenged those teenagers to get clean. DesRosier is eight months sober, after overcoming an opiate addiction. “I am here to tell you it is so much better to be sober,” he said. In an especially stark moment, about 100 students moved to the line to show they had tried cutting themselves to deal with emotional pain. About 25 students had attempted suicide. Senior Keenan Thomas recited a poem he wrote that started as a suicide letter but “turned into a poem about wanting to live.” “Students are all wearing the ‘Choose Life’ bracelets today and still asking for them for others,” Erb said after the assemblies. “Facebook had so many posts from students saying how the event helped them and inspired them.” The next step, she said, is spreading the Peer Helping message to other local schools. Sena Christian can be reached at