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Nelson relief teacher, Elenor Aleksich (centre) with US couple Rich Dutra and Yvonne St John, who have arrived in Aotearoa to help run their “Challenge Day” anti-bullying programme at Broadgreen Intermediate school.
The creators of a celebrated American school programme about to be trialled at a Nelson school say it has a 36-year track-record of helping reduce bullying – including student-on-student violence.
The “Challenge Day” anti-bullying programme is due to be trialled at Broadgreen Intermediate school on May 2-3, after local relief teacher, Elenor Aleksich, approached its founders, US couple Yvonne St John and Rich Dutra, to help run it in Aotearoa.
School bullying has been in the spotlight in recent months, with videos emerging nationwide of students assaulting other students while their peers filmed and looked on.
New Zealand recorded the second-highest school bullying rate in the OECD in 2019.
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Elenor Aleksich wants to bring the American, Challenge Day programme to Nelson, and hopes to combine it with Pink T Shirt Day, on May 20th.
St John said “Challenge Day” was being used in schools across every US state, and province and territory in Canada, and in countries including Germany, Australia, Japan, India, Holland and many countries in Africa.
Its impact was profound from the moment it launched at Livermore High School in California in 1987, where there had just been a “huge fight”, she said.
“The same kids that were hitting each other … were in each others arms sobbing, realising they had more in common than different.”
Word about the programme then started to spread, she said.
Television producer Arnold Shapiro made a TV series in 2000 featuring the programme, called “Teen Files: Surviving High School”, which won an Emmy.
“Challenge Day” appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006, with the pair then re-appearing on the talk show, St John said.
“We were on the news, on documentaries, Oprah Winfrey, just because it was working so profoundly.”
The programme combatted bullying by calling forth empathy and compassion, she said.
The two-day programme started with games. Students later went into adult-supervised groups, and were asked to complete the sentence “if you really knew me, you would know that…”.
Students participating globally seemed to share a sense of freedom from realising they shared similar feelings, Dutra said.
The biggest problems the programme revealed were separation, isolation and loneliness, he said.
Social media had amplified bullying because perpetrators could hide more easily.
“[And] because people are competing for likes … they are all trying to be as out there as they can.”
Dutra said many schools that used the programme in America had used it for 30 years.
While the effects of the programme could wear off for some, others were transformed positively for life, he said.
St John said in 99.9% of cases the programme worked, “meaning that people are in tears, loving each other and hugging each other by the end of the day.”
Students were then invited to commit to an act of kindness every day.
“Challenge Day” had been adapted for businesses and organisations.
Aleksich said the programme was nothing like those currently used by New Zealand schools to target bullying and social issues.
It didn’t just break down barriers between students, it “smashed them to pieces”, she said.
Dutra and St John would lead a community workshop in Nelson on May 1 to give community members an experience of the programme, before the school trial.
Among 78 people booked on the workshop so far were staff from the main high schools in the Nelson region, 10 regional learning support teachers, and primary school staff from Motueka.
Places are available at the community workshop on May 1, at a cost of $60. Anyone interested could email firstname.lastname@example.org