When you ask Chandler eighth-graders Bella Rios and Zach Albanese and seventh-grader Rishabh Naimpally about what’s on their peers’ minds, you’re likely to get a disturbing answer.
But when you ask the Aprende Middle School students what they are doing about it, you likely will feel hopeful.
The three students were among nearly 100 Kyrene middle school students who joined about 5,000 of their peers Jan. 21 at Grand Canyon University for the fourth annual Speak Up, Stand Up, Save a Life Conference hosted by Grand Canyon University.
Its purpose, as explained by Jennifer Johnson, GCU director of academic alliances, is to empower “younger students to build a positive school community, develop quality relationships among all students and staff, and take action when a classmate needs help.”
“Suicide and bullying are serious issues affecting every community,” she added.
Ask Bella, Zack and Rishabh about pressures their peers are under – and they echo the same ones that high school students have been telling school boards about.
“It’s like they’re doing too much at one time,” Zach explained. “They’re biting off more than they can chew and they’re like, they’re trying to do more and then when like all of a sudden it becomes too hard. They don’t know what to do. They become too stressed out. They want to feel like quitting whatever it is they’re trying to do.”
Added Bella: “They’re pushing themselves to the point where they get so stressed out. They push themselves in schoolwork to try to maintain their grades and all - because of that, they start lacking, thinking they aren’t doing what is right for them, thinking they’re not good enough for it and then they get super-stressed out. That’s usually like a common topic I have witnessed.”
Since July 2017, at least 40 teens and at least one pre-teen in Chandler and neighboring communities have taken their lives.
In each of the last six years Principal Renee Kory helmed at Aprende, there was one suicide involving either a student at her school or Corona del Sol High.
So, it may come as no surprise Kory takes a group of 20 students to Speak Up, Stand Up every year since it started.
Her example inspired Kyrene’s other middle school principals to follow suit so they, too, now take a student delegation to Speak Up, Stand Up.
“I would say every year it seems there are more pressures every year, more issues kids are facing,” Kory said. “So we’re just continually trying to find ways to reach them and support them.”
Moreover, she and counselor Brook Norris noted, the student delegates to the conference give them more eyes and ears so they can help troubled children far earlier than they might have.
“Of course, they have their teachers and they have Mrs. Norris,” Kory explained. “They have administration and parents. But their friends are who they look to first.”
It means, she continued, with students like Bella, Zach and Rishab school staffers are “not only having them be those positive influences but also having them be sometimes a voice or help saying, ‘Hey, this needs to go to Ms. Norris or we need to go talk to somebody.’ ‘We need to get you help.’
“It makes all the difference,” Kory added. “We’re building capacity here and in the district.”
And this capacity is needed more now than ever, she and Norris added, particularly in light of how social media has exacerbated bullying and feelings of insecurity among teens and even younger kids.
For Bella and Zach, this was their second conference.
As all the students will again this year, they came back from last year’s day-long retreat and had to develop a project.
The year before they went, the students who attended developed and executed an idea to make and distribute suicide awareness/prevention rubber bracelets. Last year, Bella, Zach and the others developed stickers.
Rishabh was so impressed he wanted to join the effort this year.
“Those (stickers) were huge because everybody was like slapping them on their water bottles,” Rishabh recalled. “And then the girls liked the bracelets. Some had like tons of them on their wrists and arms.”
In turn, the kids who saw the stickers or the bracelets asked about them. And the student leaders like Bella and Zach could then tell them about how to be aware of suicidal tendencies among their classmates and what to do when they sense something is amiss.
The three Aprende students and the others who attended the conference were selected on the basis of the criteria conference leaders suggested.
“They ask to please select students who are positive leaders and are influential because they have to do an outreach project afterward,” Kory explained.
“So, they need to be confident enough to speak to their peers and to impact change and have tough conversations with kids because the kids listen to them more than us,” she continued, adding:
“So, we picked the ones we know are able to be positive leaders and are comfortable talking to their peers.”
Bella said even before she and her group last year made the stickers, kids were asking her about the conference and what is involved.
Rishabh said he was eager to go because he sees the need.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do because like now in our society, there’s so many people on drugs,” he said, adding:
“There are so many young people who are dying from suicide. I just wanted to go to the conference to see the messages so I can help in a bigger way. I needed more information to actually raise awareness to other people.”
All three students are eager to build on some of the ideas they picked up from their peers and from the inspirational speakers who addressed the entire crowd.
“There are some things you don’t really notice,” Zach said. “And I feel like if you know those warning signs, you’d know a lot more of like how you can help somebody.”
Bella recalled how one speaker noted doing even a small thing “may not change your life but may save a life.”
Which is why Kory feels the conference and its aftermath are so critical.
“It is building leadership capacity in these amazing young people we take to the conference every year because their outreach is so much greater than ours will ever be,” she said.
“The kids, to them, they are their people and they are more influenced by them at this age than anyone else.”