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Peer helpers teach freshmen about using power for good

Host parents at end of semester to teach them about peer helping course
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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In front of about 40 of his classmates, a Roseville High School junior recently admitted he was once a big-time bully.

Johnny De Los Santos made fun of unpopular kids and everyone feared him, he said. One kid in particular bore the brunt of his bullying. Then one day, De Los Santos went into the boy’s bathroom to find this kid with a rope tied around his neck.

“I ran toward him and grabbed him so he wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I told him I would never bully anyone ever again. And I haven’t since.”

An emotional De Los Santos returned to his seat, where a classmate wrapped an arm around his shoulders and whispered “Good job.”

De Los Santos shared this story in peer helping, an elective course taught by Valerie Erb that teaches teenagers to reach out to others. The students learn about leadership, conflict management and other interpersonal skills.

In November, the class hosted freshmen for their “power lesson,” in which the upper classmen talked about using power in a positive way — and refraining from misusing power to harm others.

“I’m not going to kid you guys,” Erb told the freshmen. “Our job is trying to change you guys if you’ve ever hurt someone.”

Student Annisa Barajas pulled apart a clay heart to demonstrate what happens inside a bullied teenager when that person is called a “loser” or “weird” or “ugly.”

“Why would you hurt people when you can make them better?” she asked.

Student Kayla Newton molded the clay back together to show how giving compliments, opening the door for someone or saying you love them helps heal a person’s heart.

Bring in the parents

In late-November, the second-period peer helpers hosted some special guests — eight of their parents — for one of the final events of the semester-long course. The intent was to show parents what their children have gone through by being in the class.

The group began with a team-building activity called “Pass the Word,” when one person whispers a word to their neighbor who then whispers the first word that comes to mind to their neighbor around the circle. What started as “robot” became “toilet cleaner,” “Jamba Juice,” “banana” and dozens more words before ending with “grouch.”

“(This activity) is one of the ways we make kids on campus part of a bigger group,” Erb said.

She said their effort to be inclusive of others and spread positivity on campus is reflected in the school’s declining suspension rates since her program began five years ago.

In 2007-08, the school reported 546 suspensions. Last year, there were 343 suspensions.

“I do believe that the peer helping program has helped to reduce the number of suspensions issued, including those for creating a hostile environment — bullying, harassment, threats, intimidation,” said Principal Brad Basham. “The reduction can also be partly attributed to the addition of an on-campus suspension program, but unfortunately we will be losing that program at the end of the semester.”

‘So much promise’

During “parent day,” the adults fielded questions from students. One teenager asked about the relationship between the parent and child.

“It’s good if I do my chores, it’s bad if I don’t,” said Elise Avilla.

Her mom, Mary Hanners, had a different perspective.

“I would have said I wish she was home more,” Hanners said. “She’s very social this year. I miss you, that’s all.”

Student Chey Mills told her mom she liked their close bond.

“Something you taught me is that I could tell you anything. I really appreciate that. You’re my best friend,” Mills said.

Student Kaylor Debach-Riley apologized to classmate Skyler Buchman and his mom for hurting Buchman when they were younger.

“I just want to say that I was one of the kids that bullied you,” Debach-Riley said, before getting choked up.

“Don’t even worry about it. You’re like one of my best friends now,” Buchman said, walking over to give Debach-Riley a hug.

The only dad present, Susheel Kumar, encouraged the teenagers to follow their dreams and use peer helping to get on the right track.

“There’s so much promise in here, each one of you has a gift and what happens in society, these gifts are dismissed away,” Kumar said. “My message is be unique, be an individual, do the right thing and make a difference.”

Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at SenaC_RsvPT.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a periodic series checking in with the first and second period peer helping class at Roseville High School. The first two articles are available here and here on the Press Tribune website. 

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Peer helping is an elective class at Roseville High School open to all ninth through 12th graders, designed to teach students the process of helping another person. Students learn peer leadership, peer counseling, conflict management, peer mediation, team building and other interpersonal skills.