More than 20 years after Columbine, Northeastern students honor a victim

A student who was bullied at her former school now has a community — thanks to the Friends of Rachel Club at Northeastern Middle School.

"I was always the loner kid," said seventh grader Kianna Rivera, 13, but when she came to Northeastern the change was immediate, she said.

Seventh grader Kianna Rivera, 13, a mentor with the Friends of Rachel Club, is shown at Northeastern Middle School in Manchester, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Friends of Rachel is an organization based on the writings and ethics of Rachel Scott, the first victim killed in the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. Rivera had been bullied before and moved to the school in September, where she gained friends through the club and now works to help others. Dawn J. Sagert photo

She met her friends there and, as of March 2, is now a member of the club — part of a national movement inspired by the outlook of Rachel Joy Scott.

Rachel was the first victim of the Columbine High School shooting in Denver, Colorado, 20 years ago and was known for her willingness to reach out to students in need and show them kindness — even her shooters.

What happened to Rachel and the other victims of the mass school shooting was a tragedy, said eighth grader Isabella Datesman, 14, explaining why she joined and became president of Northeastern's club.

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“I was inspired because I feel like everyone should do their part to make a difference if they can," she said.

Rachel's story has been shared internationally through schools that participate in Rachel’s Challenge, a program aimed at improving school climate and reducing violence and bullying. 

Northeastern Middle School is not the only York County school with a Friends of Rachel Club, but it's unique in its scope.

The Friends of Rachel Club at Northeastern includes 100 students who facilitate activities schoolwide through 10 different subcommittees, and their “Rachel’s Closet” became a model for clubs across the nation.

There’s even one in Mexico, said Principal Michael Alessandroni.

Starting in 2013-14, teachers and students transformed an old in-school suspension classroom into a boutique where students can shop for donated clothing.

“There’s a lot of kids who are in need of stuff but they’re too afraid to ask, and here they can have a safe place to gather the things that they need, said eighth grader Evie Lau, 14.

Alessandroni and school counselor Dana Godfrey were recently invited by Rachel’s father, Darrell Scott, to speak at the Rachel’s Challenge Social Emotional Learning Academy, a weeklong conference, this summer about the work they have done.

Each day, about 25 students rotate through the closet, washing and sorting clothing and food items.

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And students give back, too.

Eighth grader Cecelia Clouser, 14, treasurer of the club, said every year since third grade she has collected clothing to donate for her birthday. Seventh grader Tyler Wales, 13, bought and donated 12 new pairs of shoes to the closet when he heard there was a need.

The Zen Den is just one feature offered by the Friends of Rachel Club at Northeastern Middle School in Manchester, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Students might use the space when feeling overwhelmed or anxious. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Since then, the club has expanded with a number of new spaces for students, including a "zen den" where students can go to relax, and a hair salon.

But the work of the club is more than that.

It includes the CIA — Compassion In Action — which leaves notes for students in lockers and bathrooms; the Sunshine Gang, targeting teachers' wellness; and the Kindness Crew — new this year — which supports students on social media.

Alessandroni said students choose to support the victims online rather than combat the bullies, and it shuts down the negative momentum.

From left, seventh graders Peityn Meese, 13, Lizzy Zimmerman, 13, Rachel Theodore, 13, and Tyler Wales, 13, play a game of cornhole during the mentoring group meeting of the Friends of Rachel Club at Northeastern Middle School in Manchester, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

“You’ll find that kids will go onto social media a lot and then they’ll see all these people that have a perfect life because that’s all they show," said eighth grader Abbie Maiellano, 13, so now the Kindness Crew is making an Instagram page to lift them up.

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Groups are developed based on needs seen by students, faculty and staff, and the club has also raised a lot of money to help families.

That also includes garnering support for students such as Hope Westrick, 14, who was only in school a couple of weeks, and died from bone cancer.

“The students rallied around her,” Godfrey said. “They barely knew her, but they were sending her video messages in the hospital, lots of cards.”

It's about looking for the positive in situations — a whole different approach from what people are used to, she said.