The tragic death of David Molak, 16, a suicide victim bullied by his Alamo Heights High School classmates, brought the national conversation on bullying into painful focus in San Antonio. Local parents demanded accountability from school district leadership, fellow students and friends mourned, and public officials launched public message campaigns. For many school principals, the Molak tragedy served as a harsh reminder of how quickly unaddressed situations can spin out of control.

At Page Middle School, principal Patricia Ortiz takes bullying very seriously. She addresses it early in the year, rather than waiting on district, state, or national campaigns. However, she also feels that many anti-bullying initiatives don’t get to the heart of the matter.

“Bullying can come from not accepting differences,” said Ortiz.

These issues are universal, Ortiz said, and every middle school deals with the same issues. Middle school is a time when students become painfully aware of their differences and the differences of others. They are often processing intense feelings on the matter.

Page MS Principal Patricia Ortiz. Photo by Bekah McNeel
Page MS Principal Patricia Ortiz. Photo by Bekah McNeel

In the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, Page celebrated “Friendship Week.” The focus of the week was not about explicit steps to solve bullying, but about building a culture of acceptance and celebrating differences. Each day, students attended an assembly of some sort that emphasized acceptance. They watched videos about diversity and the effects of exclusion. Students practiced exercises with the school counselors to demonstrate to power of inclusion and the value of differences. Egyptian and Aztec dance troops visited campus to showcase the beauty of diversity.

Ortiz wasn’t sure the assembly topics were resonating with the kids, until she saw the posters they made to decorate the school in honor of Friendship Week. Students translated the values and principals in to meaningful and moving images.

The grand finale of Friendship week was “National No One Eats Alone Day,” an initiative from the social isolation awareness group Beyond Differences. The initiative was also formally recognized by the SAISD Board in January.

In preparation for Friday’s lunch period, Page’s “Communities in Schools” campus coordinator and parent family liaison worked with parents to decorate the cafeteria with posters and balloons. They covered the tables in butcher paper so that students could write positive messages, and passed out wristbands provided by Beyond Differences bearing the message: “Inspiring youth to end social isolation.”

Teachers hand out colored paper hearts to sort students into groups at National No One Eats Alone Day. Photo by Bekah McNeel
Teachers hand out colored paper hearts to sort students into groups at National No One Eats Alone Day. Photo by Bekah McNeel

As students entered the cafeteria for lunch on Friday, they received different colored paper hearts. They sat with their color group, equipped with a stack of cards with conversation starters printed on them. As with many exercises throughout the week, they found themselves sitting with classmates outside their usual social group.

“I’ve had so many conversations with people I would never have talked to,” said Olivia, a gregarious eighth grader.

She and several of her classmates agreed that the message of the week had made an impact.

“I’m sure I’m not the only one whose mind has been opened,” said Jacob.

Even outside of assemblies and inclusion exercises, students said they noticed people behaving differently. It has also increased their awareness of the how isolated some of their classmates might be feeling. When Olivia saw a pregnant classmate standing alone after school, she left her usual group of friends, and reached out to the pregnant young woman.

“Now I have a new friend,”she said.

Students said that pregnant young women are typically among the most ostracized individuals, and some are even physically bullied. Others are teased or bullied because of their race. On a campus that’s around 98% hispanic, white students like Haley are often told they don’t belong.

“They told me, ‘you only get straight A’s because you’re white,’” she said.

Peers also told her that she shouldn’t be at Page, but should be in a school on the Northside, making Haley feel as though she didn’t belong in the larger community either. Eventually Haley found a group of friends who make her feel like she has a place to belong. The friends who hugged her and patted her back as we talked were all Hispanic, and expressed an awareness of their racial difference. They simply enjoy the many things they have in common besides race.

“You have to find different ways to bond,” said Haley.

Now Haley is helping her little brother navigate the same issues as he enters middle school. The siblings have a double disadvantage. Not only are they in a tiny racial minority on campus, but they moved to the school a few years ago from a different state, giving them automatic outsider status that has been hard to overcome.

The supplies provided to Page Middle School by Beyond Differences for No One Eats Alone Day. Photo by Bekah McNeel
The supplies provided to Page Middle School by Beyond Differences for No One Eats Alone Day. Photo by Bekah McNeel

For many students, social isolation begins when they are the “new kid,” said Ortiz. However, she reminds the students that most people will experience that feeling on some level. In a school with a mobility rate over 35%, it’s likely that many students will face the challenge of finding friends among unfamiliar faces. Ortiz encourages them to practice the kind of empathy they would want to receive.

Having one of the district’s programs for differently abled students helps Page students to develop empathy. Ortiz said that when it comes to students who use wheelchairs, or those with profound and obvious learning differences, the students seem compelled to create a supportive environment. She tries to help realize that attitude should be extended to all of their classmates.

In most middle schools, kids can be bullied for anything that makes them stand out from the crowd, whether it’s positive or negative, said Ortiz. Most often, she said, it’s appearance. She has seen students singled out for being too skinny, fat, tall, and even too pretty. Once the boys start to notice a girl, she said, the girl starts getting picked on by other girls.

Adults with years of perspective can easily say, “Oh honey, they’re just jealous,” but isolation is still painful. It drives some of those young women to seek acceptance from boys in ways that can compromise their health and academic success.

As Page students strive to make a better place for their peers, they are gaining a valuable skill set. The ability to consider the perspective of others is a crucial social tool. According to Mind in the Making, an organization focused on brain development, this type of empathy is one of the seven essential life skills that point toward a child’s future success.

For many students, the change begins with the simple act of taking perspective. Even for kids who aren’t actively bullying or excluding peers, Friendship Week is designed to help them take the extra step to be part of the solution and create an atmosphere of acceptance.

“This week opened my mind to how people treat other people who are different,” Jacob added.

*Top Image: Page Middle School students celebrate their differences. Photo by Bekah McNeel

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.