Published Monday, October 16, 2000

Middle school pledges aimed at violence

George Ayoub is a columnist at The Independent.

My hands are turning purple. You have my word on it. And all they had to do was ask.
George Ayoub
"They" are 18 "character ambassadors" from Walnut Middle School who have invited me to make a pledge and purple up the ol' mitts.

The pledge is one against violence, and Wednesday morning, the ambassadors are going to rally their classmates to sign up too. "If they pledge, they'll have a responsibility," said Alysha Cline. "They won't put others down."

Or punch them in the nose, according to the simple, compelling oath that hundreds will take: "I will not use my hands or my words for hurting myself or others." Cline and fellow eighth-grader ambassadors Steve Sloan, Kelly Phouthavong, Tyler Stecker, Justin Hruby and Lindsey Meier are a third of the group recruited to lead the pledge drive.

Barr has already gone purple, and according to Westridge counselor Carla Robb, the middle school at the end of Cannon Road will also be putting up hands this week. Those who pledge trace their hands on a piece of purple paper, cut it out and sign the commitment. The hands then go up on the wall at school.

And some early indications are encouraging. "We're noticing a change with kids in conflict who took this pledge. We use it as a tool in conflict resolution," Barr counselor Kirk Ramsey said.

Tragic beginnings

Barr is in good company. In Oregon, where Purple Hands started, the results have been nearly unbelievable. In the first year of the program, one Junction City middle school had an 85 percent decrease in assault, a 50 percent decrease in fighting and a 88 percent decrease in serious office referrals.

While Purple Hands is designed to combat violence, it was born from tragedy. Springfield, Ore., was reeling in May 1998 after high school student Kip Kinkel murdered his parents and then went on a shooting rampage at Thurston High School, turning the cafeteria into a killing field where two died and others were wounded.

From the ashes of such violence grew the "Hands Are Not for Hurting" project, now based down the road in Salem. Within a year, Thurston's walls were ringed three times with purple hands from kids and community members, none of whom were compelled to make the pledge but wanted to do so. The hands serve as memorials to those who died, the pledges that it not happen again. Other Oregon schools then got into the act, then schools in New York and Ohio and now Grand Island. Even a hospital in Salem permits parents of newborns to sign the pledge, their hands flanking a tiny purple paw with a pink heart inside.

Back in Walnut's conference room, the ambassadors ate popcorn, swilled soda and told me why this is important. "It (violence) affects how you work. If you worry all day about something that happened in the morning or is going to after school, you won't be paying attention," Sloan said.

Sixth-grader Amber Kubik pointed out that the place would feel better too with pledges. "We don't want any fights. It would be kind of scary," she said.

And famous too

When I asked them about what they would say to someone who chose to be different, chose not to sign the pledge, sixth-grader Michelle Bergholz said she would "tell them to be different in some other way."

She, Kubik and classmates Angie Boersen, Ryan John, Chris Boroff and Devin Gall are the sixth-grade ambassadorial contingent and hope to make a difference. They said the stakes are high. "If nobody signs, we might have more violence," John said.

Community support is important for the project too. They hope to get high school coaches, community leaders and wayward columnists to pledge. The famous could also get their chance. "We might be able to get Nebraska football players too," Brooke Bartek said. She's part of the seventh-grade ambassadors, who include Jake Ryba, Adam Reed, Stormy Sickler, Tara Kilmek and Brandon Petties.

Walnut Principal Vikki Deuel and counselor Mary Ann Richards, who came across Purple Hands at a character education conference last summer, are excited about the possibilities. So is school resource officer Rick Ressel, who called the program another tool in the march against school violence.

Richards already teaches a class on bullying, a way of life they hope purple hand pledges will surely put a dent in. She said, according to a Canadian study, 60 percent of kids identified as bullies in middle school have at least one criminal conviction by the time they are 24. Deuel adds that the class has had an impact. "After (the class), kids would come in and say, 'I think I'm a bully. I don't want to be,'" she said.

Will purple work? Will pledgers keep their promise? The sentiment around the table Tuesday was yes. "I think if someone broke the pledge, they would be disappointed," Stecker said. "It would be kind of like lying."

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