BRIDGET FRYMAN CORRESPONDENT
If you ask Allyson Conrad, she’ll tell you it started in English class a few months ago.
The Fairfield senior picked a very relevant topic when her teacher asked the class to write an answer to the question, “What needs to change?”
But really, the idea was born six years ago, when an angry then-sixth-grader marched herself down to the principal’s office to demand that something be done about her little sister being bullied.
“It always stuck with me,” Conrad said. “A mad sixth-grader went to the principal and nothing happened. There were no harsh consequences.”
What happened to her sister and countless other friends weighed heavily on her when she started crafting her answer. Her teacher was impressed with what she wrote and talked to her about it. That was the spark Conrad needed to form It Starts With Us.
“I was determined to make a change,” she said.
Conrad gathered two friends, Dylan Kaufman and Cheyenne Emmons, and the three circulated a petition to see if the student body wanted to see an anti-bullying campaign. They collected 258 signatures.
They recruited other seniors to join their movement, and started promoting their cause on social media. They also got students to agree to and sign a pledge.
Their next move was to put up notes on a wall in school under the title “Take what you need.” The notes were uplifting, such as “You are strong,” “You can you will” “I believe in me.” The idea was for students to take the cards or give them to someone else.
The response was overwhelming.
“It was very surprising, but it made me happy,” Conrad said of seeing those notes disappear so quickly.
When the art teacher heard what the group was doing, she offered up her unused bulletin board. The students decorated the board in the theme of the movie “Up” and it read, “Let’s lift each other up by giving someone a compliment.” Students took notes from envelopes on that board and passed the compliments out to each other.
Before Christmas break, the bulletin board was switched over to a holiday theme, “Light up someone’s day,” and the group asked the student body to tweet compliments to decorate the Christmas tree.
In addition to spreading kindness, Conrad said they want to see real change in the consequences for bullying. The group has met with administrators about changing the language of the student handbook.
In a presentation to the school board Dec. 14, Conrad outlined some suggested changes to the handbook, which included involving parents sooner, allowing for some personal reflection for both the bully and the victim, and having offenders who are involved in extra-curricular activities also miss practices or games.
“Anyone who is in extra-curriculars is the face of the school and should be held to a higher standard,” Conrad said.
Principal Amy Bertram met with It Starts With Us and worked through some of their suggestions and helped them to realize what was possible and what wasn’t. The goal is to have any changes to the student handbook ready for school board approval in March.
Superintendent Steve Thalheimer told the board members at that same meeting that he would be coming to them in January with a plan to address the overall social and emotional climate at each of the buildings, and said working with It Starts With Us would be part of his focus.
“There are so many students who are having difficulty navigating the world of social media and who seem lost amidst the swirl of hectic lives around us that they don’t know how to communicate, empathize and cope,” Thalheimer said. “Three years ago I used the ‘Our Community, Our Schools’ tagline for the construction projects and taking care of physical spaces around the district; now I need us as a school community to focus on the social and mental health of our students and do a better job of webbing up under students to nurture their success.”
Neither Conrad nor Bertram want to see this effort end when these seniors graduate in May. Bertram has asked them to tag some underclassmen to be leaders as well to carry the torch.
“I hope this can be a program that all schools can take part in,” Conrad said. “I just want it to grow to where everyone is spreading kindness and not bullying each other.”
Bertram said the school has tried to do more to prevent and raise awareness of bullying in recent years. Having students join the battle is a game-changer.
“I’ve never seen a group of students be so intentional, so reflective,” Bertram said. “They understand it does have to come from the students. Student leaders have to model and set expectations for other students. For them to understand and go about it in a proper and reasearched way — I am so proud of them.”