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Students graduate to ‘peer helpers’

Tasked with preaching respect, promoting anti-bullying climate on campus
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Three years ago, a student kept passing by another student eating lunch alone, until one day he decided to stop.

Jason Kondrad struck up a conversation with Roseville High School freshman Porfirio Gutierrez.

“I don’t know. It just seemed like a nice thing to do,” Kondrad, 20, said.

The guys started eating lunch together, then Kondrad invited Gutierrez to a Halloween youth group event and they have remained friends. That first time, Kondrad wasn’t sure about reaching out to a stranger, worried it might be awkward. But that’s what peer helpers learn to do, and Kondrad was one of them.

“I realized it wasn’t about me,” he said.

Kondrad credits the action to his involvement with peer helping, an elective class led by teacher Valerie Erb designed to teach students the process of helping another person. Students learn skills and preach respect — loudly spelling out the word together whenever they feel it’s not happening.

In mid-October, students in the semester-long class — totaling about 120 over three periods — participated in a graduation ceremony. They passed an eight-page exam and underwent two months of Erb’s coaching and advice, and now they’re taking those lessons to their peers.

As official peer helpers, these students are tasked with assisting their classmates, providing support and promoting an anti-bullying climate.

During the ceremony, students sat in a circle and said something nice about the person sitting to their left before lighting that person’s tea candle.

“This is a turning point,” Erb told the class. “We’ve just lit each other’s candles, saying we will be a light (on campus). … Now our mission is to get to know all the kids on campus and reach out to them.”

This is senior Nicky O’Connell’s third year in peer helping.

“I like helping and I thought this was a good way to give back,” he said. “You see how kids around here change.”

O’Connell spoke to the school’s freshmen during the peer helping anti-bullying assembly in October. He talked about being an athlete and then having hip surgery — and how no longer playing sports affected his identity and caused his motivation and grades to drop.

Sophomore Emily Phipps said she was in an abusive relationship in eighth grade and survived an attempted rape. People spread rumors and called her a whore.

“When you hear that every day, you start to believe that,” she said.

She struggled with body image issues and eating disorders.

“I had to be thin, I had to wear a lot of makeup, I had to be pretty so people would like me,” she said.

Another student said he was ridiculed for the color of his skin. A senior talked about an older male relative who was murdered and how she sought solace in other guys to fill the void. One night she was raped by two men at a party.

“I want to tell you my story because no girl deserves to be treated like that,” she said. “You’re better than that.”

The point of the assembly is to show how everyone goes through pain in life, and teenagers should remember that next time they feel the urge to bully someone else.

About 60 or so peer helpers lined up and told one statement about themselves — alcoholic dads, suicide attempts, insecurities — so someone with the same struggle can later connect with that student and seek support.

If peer helpers learn about abuse they are expected to tell an authority figure on campus, Erb said.

As for Gutierrez, 17, after befriending Kondrad, he enrolled in peer helping.

“It was definitely fun for me,” Gutierrez said. “Before then, I was cut off from everybody else. Everyone is so nice to each other (in the class).

The classmates genuinely want to see one another, Kondrad said.

“It should be this way at every high school,” he said.

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 second article in a periodic series checking in with the first and second period peer helping class at Roseville High School. All articles are available 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.