1,500 Attend Character Education Initiative at West Milford High School
On Thursday, October 20, 2010 an initiative that crystallized the importance of renewing character education took place for 1,500 members of West Milford High School in Northern Passaic County, New Jersey. The event was attended by all students as well as by faculty, staff and administrators.
As the speaker for the event, I was privileged to address every student of the high school with a program titled Be a Person of Character: Change the World. The program was delivered in two separate assemblies, first for the 9th and 10th grade followed by a session for the 11th and 12th grade. It was modified for each venue due to the different social and emotional dynamics of each group.
Through an honest assessment of contemporary concerns in the nation, indicated by the collision courses of corruption, violence, broken families, alcohol/substance abuse, driving under the influence tragedies and toxic relationships, the program challenged the students to influence America, one person at a time, by living a life of character.
Recent headlines, very familiar to the students, were identified and evaluated including:
- The suicide of 18 year old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi who took his life on September 22, 2010 by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge. Clementi's roommate and roommate's friend are charged with invasion of privacy, accused of taping Clementi having a sexual encounter with a young man and posting it live on the web
- The murder of Yale student Annie Le, whose body was found on what should have been her wedding day
- The "Suicide by Bullying" tragedy of Phoebe Prince from South Hadley, Massachusetts
- The sexting incident that led to the death of 18 year-old Jessie Logan from Cincinnati, Ohio
- Megan Meier's loss of life due to a cyber-bullying MySpace hoax. Megan committed suicide by hanging herself just prior to her 14th birthday
- Michael Brewer,15, set on fire after been doused with rubbing alcohol by three teens, ages 13, 15 and 16 in Broward County, Florida, after a stolen bicycle incident. Over 65% of Michael's body was burned
- The shocking murder of lacrose player Yeardley Love at the University of Virginia
- The brutal "text rage" beating into a coma of teenager Josie Lou Ratley. Josie spent 41 days in the hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and had 3 surgeries
In light of these recent tragedies, the presentation emphasized that by living a life of character, communities of hope can be cultivated and each student has the power to change the world by helping others do what is right. Being a person of character in all our actions, including the manner in which we express ourselves through Online social networking and texting was highlighted. The positive contributions being made throughout the country by young students as documented in the CNN special Young People Who Rock were utilized as a call to action, including:
- Elizabeth Torres--a national speaker who tells students, "We won't stumble. We've come to save the world."
- Brittany Merrill--started a non-profit to help Uganda's poor, raising $800,000 in donations and also opened an orphanage for 180 children in Texas.
- Aaron Fotheringham--born with spina bifida but extreme sports competitor and champion
- Sadiya Buta--came to the U.S. from war torn Somalia; star tennis player with perfect GPA
- Taraje Williams Murray--a four time national judo champion with 16 hour training days
- Matt Cerner--founded sports clinic for children of special needs, working with 100 special needs kids and their families
- Winnie Phan--started Safe Walk Program with older students mentoring younger students afraid of walking to schools in troubled neighborhoods
The call to action was also inflamed as inspired by the life of Rachel Scott, the first student killed at Columbine. Rachel's example of kindness and compassion--coupled with the contents of her 6 diaries which have become the foundation of a life changing character education program for American schools--was warmly received by the students.
As with all of my presentations, the event concluded with a tribute to the American Military who serve our nation in harm's way, allowing us our liberty and freedom.
After addressing the entire school community, I spent an hour with about 40 students who serve the school in the Peers as Leaders Initiative. After sharing a customized short presentation with them, they broke up in groups to share their own concerns on issues important to their school communities. Afterwards, a leader from each of the groups shared insights with all peer leaders which focused on practical ways in which they can influence their school. These included:
- Enhancing interaction with the entire school community
- Cultivating their mentoring approach to the student body
- Building cohesiveness and strengthening school spirit through example and respect for others
- Promoting the positive work of the Peers as Leaders through outreach in the school and positive involvement
The entire West Milford High School community deserves recognition for their dedication to this character education initiative. A special commendation is deserving of Principal Maureen Bernstock whose visionary leadership led to the success of the event.
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