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Students, teachers and community members learned about spreading kindness last week.

A representative from Rachel's Challenge came to Milton M. Somers Middle School to talk about spreading a chain reaction of kindness based on the writings and ideals of Rachel Scott, the first victim of the 1999 Columbine massacre.

A motivational speaker with Rachel's Challenge came to the La Plata school to show a video of Rachel's life, including news footage of the shooting spree at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colo., in which she was killed.

The speaker, Todd Lauderdale, explained how students can help to curb bullying and other negative aspects of life through simple acts of kindness, which is what Rachel's Challenge is all about.

Later that night, Lauderdale gave a similar presentation for parents.

On April 20, 1999, 12 students and one teacher were killed and dozens were injured when two students opened fire in the school before taking their own lives.

Though the students ended the massacre by killing themselves, many associated the shootings with the killers having been bullied for years.

Lauderdale said the programs are geared toward different audiences and, while they are similar, evoke different reactions. Students are able to relate to Rachel's story and to experience with bullying, violence and dealing with gossip.

Parents, he said, “They are hearing about a student who was killed by school violence.”

Somers' Principal Stephanie Wesolowski told parents and community members during the presentation that the program was “the most life-changing school program in my 25 years of teaching.”

Nine hundred students saw the presentation Wednesday, and Wesolowski said the room was silent as students focused on the video and Lauderdale's messages.

The program was put together by Rachel's father, Darrell, and includes interviews with Rachel's family members and friends.

During the community presentation, participants learned of five different challenges the program requests of audiences. These challenges were created based on excerpts from Rachel's diary and essays.

The five challenges are: Look for the best in others and eliminate prejudices, dream big, choose positive influences, speak words of kindness and go to the people you care about and tell them you love them.

Lauderdale told parents that he was guilty of prejudice all the time and gave examples of judging people based on the music they listen to, what they are purchasing at the grocery store and what they are wearing.

“I don't even know the person, and I'm all ready to place judgment on them,” he said.

He said instead of placing that judgment, he and others should look for the best in others.

“If we're willing to look for the best, we help to bring out the best,” he said.

Parents learned of the one teacher who died during the Columbine massacre, William David Sanders, and how he purposely rushed in the direction of the shooting as others were rushing out, warning classrooms of what was going on in the school.

Lauderdale said Sander's act of kindness was brave and that he wasn't looking for everyone to do as Sanders did, but “we want you to focus on the little things,” like small acts of kindness.

Doing so would continue a chain reaction of kindness.

Parent John Gorman of La Plata said the presentation for the community was very well done and that its message about kindness has the possibility to make an impact “as long as everyone takes it to heart.”

Gorman heard of the program from his son, Brian, 13, who has seen the presentation three times.

Brian said each presentation was a little different. He saw the first presentation when he was in sixth grade.

This is the third year Somers has presented the program.

According to information provided by the school, sixth-graders saw a presentation focused on Rachel's story and seventh- and eighth-grade students saw a presentation based on Rachel's impact.

“It made me cry all three times,” he said.

Brian admitted to having been bullied in some way “all my life.”

He said he sees how the movie has affected students at the school, some in a positive way. He said for others, he feels the movie has a “reverse effect.”

“I feel some people try to prove the program wrong by bullying more,” he said.

The bullies, he said, “never actually take the time to get to know the person.”

Brian said he is affected by the program in a positive way and hopes that someday those who didn't care to, would be.

Lauderdale told community members that after the student presentation, about 100 students attended a workshop with him about the Friends of Rachel Club, a training program that offers students ideas on how to get schools involved with service projects and helps them come together to help one another.

Lauderdale said any student who wasn't involved in the workshop but wanted to take part in helping with Rachel's Challenge could talk with a teacher or administrator about getting involved.

In addition to the Friends of Rachel's Club working on activities and ideas, Wesolowski said the school will hear daily “positive gossip” during announcements and have regular challenge days where students will be asked to essentially “put their money where their mouth is.”

For example, students may be asked on a challenge day to make a new friend. Wesolowski said they will be challenged not just to talk with someone new but to really get to know who that person is.

She said since the school began showing Rachel's Challenge, she has noticed changes around the school and seen more students being recognized for acts of kindness.

She said the school is trying to get the message across that “being kind is cool.”

Wesolowski said parents are also welcome to share ideas, especially in the area of social media, a growing concern as a platform for bullying.

Day in and day out, Wesolowski said, bullying that starts behind a computer screen comes into the school.

Wesolowski said she strongly encourages parents to watch what children are posting.

The presentation was coordinated by the Emerging Young Women Leaders groups from Somers, Theodore G. Davis and Mathew Henson middle schools and the Students Against Destructive Decisions at Somers. It kicks off an anti-bullying initiative at Somers.

Davis and Henson had presentations for their students last week, as well.

Wesolowski said one goal is to keep track of each act of kindness at the schools by writing them down on paper and making a chain-link in the spring. She said the goal would be to have a chain long enough to reach the three schools.

gphillips@somdnews.com