It was the deadliest school shooting of its time where 13 students lost their lives and 24 more were injured.
Out of all the storylines that came out of Columbine High School, there was one that stood out against the rest of the negativity.
Rachel Joy Scott was the first student to have her life taken that fateful 20th of April, 1999, but although her life ended there, this story just began.
In the following weeks and months, the Scott family received an outpouring of support from classmates and others sharing how Rachel positively changed their lives.
Although they were simple, random acts of kindness at the moment, the gravity of those acts carried with those people, perhaps none more than the one she kept from committing suicide.
Now, the program, known as Rachel’s Challenge, spans North America and can quantify the number of students who reach out to them and let them know that their program directly prevented them from taking their own life thanks to the positive messages of support that were dispelled.
Rachel’s Challenge boasts over 50 certified presenters who travel around the continent with specific packages that target the corresponding age-group.
There are programs designed for each grade level in schools through the college ranks, and they don’t stop there.
On top of that, there are professional development and corporate-style presentations to create a chain-link of positivity.
Certain programs have specific goals, but they all revolve around the same general notions that she talked about in her own writings.
The main pillars of this endeavor were created directly in reflection of the way Rachel Scott lived her life and her family was able to get a glimpse into that following her leaving this earth.
She left behind messages urging people to be kind, accept others, show compassion, be a positive influence and start your own chain-reaction.
The Scott family was going through Rachel’s belongings and stumbled upon a group of diaries where these lessons were explained in full detail, allowing the family to see first-hand just the kind of life their daughter lived.
On top of those six diaries, the family was able to build off Rachel’s voice in one of her last school assignments just a month before the shooting.
An essay titled, “My Ethics, My Codes of Life,” only spans a page, but goes in-depth into her reasoning behind showing compassion to everyone she comes across even if the first, second or possibly even the third impression still may not reveal everything about a person.
“Imagine you had just met someone, and you speak with them three times on brief everyday conversations,” she wrote. “They come off as a harsh, cruel, stubborn, and ignorant person. You reach your judgment based on just these three encounters. Let me ask you something...did you ever ask them what their goal in life is, what kind of past they came from, did they experience love, did they experience hurt, did you look into their soul and not just at their appearance? Until you know them and not just their ‘type,’ you have no right to shun them.”
She understood this might not be the first thought on everyone’s minds and she understood that she is in that minority of a forever-positive mindset.
She knew that it’s not the norm and embraces it.
“I am sure that my codes of life may be very different from yours, but how do you know that trust, compassion, and beauty will not make this world a better place to be in and this life a better one to live? My codes may seem like a fantasy that can never be reached, but test them for yourself, and see the kind of effect they have in the lives of people around you. You just may start a chain reaction,” the essay reads.
That chain reaction at the local level was spearheaded by Sealy High School, which brought the Rachel’s Challenge initiative to campus in October.
One of the teachers associated with the program spreading to Sealy was Lavinia Owen who teaches career and technical education and Project Lead the Way classes.
“When I heard about the program, I immediately identified with the message: Be kind,” she said. “Spread kindness. Inspire others to be kind. We have great kids here at SHS, but all kids, no matter their backgrounds, are usually facing some issue that is big in their world. Those issues may be varying greatly in degree when looked upon by an experienced adult, but to each of those kids, their issue is important.”
She talked about the gravity of creating that safety net of support for all students and that it was a no-brainer to get involved.
“Any time we can make someone feel special, why wouldn’t we?” Owen said. “If we can see a shift in how others not only treat each other respectfully, but actually take the time to get to know those you wouldn’t normally, wouldn’t that be a good thing? I have already seen some kids really step out of their comfort zone of not participating in anything, to wanting to help out and be a part of something bigger.”
She expanded on the drastic change of one of her students; “Specifically, one young man, in particular, has done a 180,” she noted.
“Once a self-promoter of ‘Being a jerk,’ he realized that he didn’t have to be like that anymore,” Owen said. “He seems to be in a better mood most days, he is nicer to people around him, he no longer is proud to be annoying and rude, and he is on multiple Friends of Rachel’s Club committees. He is eager to help and stands at the doors some mornings and greets fellow students as they walk into our school.”
All the students filled the auditorium at Sealy High to take in the presentation, ultimately accepting the challenge to spread positivity and not hate.
On top of that, there were over 100 more students who took the next step and started a Sealy branch of the “Friends of Rachel’s” Club.
The club was created the day of that presentation and features 13 sub-committees focused on a specific aspect of the challenge to continue to reinforce the positive mindset.
“We have a new-student committee … a set of students who will welcome those new to us at SHS,” Owen mentioned. “We have a committee writing appreciation letters to teachers and staff. We have two social media pages on Instagram ... one with general info and positive messages for our members and the other, a compliments page that recognizes students who are seen being nice and making a difference. We are moving towards not only being kind to one another but acknowledging people for being kind and spreading some love.”
Another way they were able to spread those messages is through their Kindness Box, filled with upbeat sayings on the outside while housing reassuring messages for whoever may need them to continue through their day.
The whole school came back together in the weeks following the initial presentation and joined the forces on Unity Day, the nation-wide initiative to denounce bullying in schools.
Anti-bully supporters don orange clothing and at the school, they had a photo booth with strictly orange accessories for students to join in and pronounce their removal of anger and hate from their schools.
Owen finished by noting just how important that removal process is, especially for students in this age-group.
“Students need to learn to be kind and respectful of each other at this age,” she said. “The reasoning is two-fold to me: First, students at this age are dealing with issues that some aren’t comfortable talking about. A feeling of helplessness and hopelessness can easily engulf some and turn them down a path they can’t get back from. If just one person can make a difference for someone else, just by simply reaching out with a smile and a kind word, then we have done something.
“If students can learn to move beyond the ‘just being kind’ and really start connecting with others, someone’s life could really be turned around. If kids can learn to be more empathetic and really listen to people at this point in their lives and make connections, imagine those same kids in the workplace or as leaders.
“That’s the second part of why this program is important for our kids to hear at this age. We should all remember that ultimately, we are training kids to go out into the real world. We need to help these kids learn to appreciate differences and get along.”