HIBBING — The teenager was a bully. With a muscular stature that towered above his peers, the high school senior had spent years fighting classmates. He would get expelled only to return to school and terrorize them again.
Then one day after school as students poured outside toward the buses, the senior did something no one expected.
“There he was, tears flowing down his face, holding up a sign he had made for himself that said, ‘I’m sorry,’” said Larry Scott, a guest speaker who addressed students in the Hibbing High School auditorium last Monday. “The worst bully that school had ever seen is now saying, ‘I’m sorry’ after three years of doing so much damage to so many people — because he heard the story called Rachel’s Challenge.”
On April 20, 1999, Rachel Joy Scott was eating lunch outside Columbine High School with a friend when she became the first of 12 students killed during the tragic shooting in Littleton, Colo.
Rachel, 17, was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and Anne Frank. She wrote an essay about starting a “chain reaction of kindness” and lived out her ideals through countless selfless acts, which her former classmates would later tell and retell after her death.
One teenage boy would describe how Rachel saved him the day she stepped between him and his bullies. But unknown to her, she saved him in more ways than one: the boy had planned to kill himself and her actions made him see he wasn’t alone in the world.
Rachel’s funeral was broadcast on CNN and at that time garnered the largest viewing audience in the channel’s history. As stories poured in from the Littleton community, Rachel’s family learned about her selfless acts and decided to create the non-profit organization that is now known as Rachel’s Challenge.
Today members of the organization travel around the globe and share messages of compassion in nearly 1,000 schools each year across America. According to the Rachel’s Challenge website, their aim is “making schools safer, more connected places where bullying and violence are replaced with kindness and respect; and where learning and teaching are awakened to their fullest.” They share videos of firsthand accounts of Rachel’s kindness as well as snippets from her journal while challenging students to live up to her example. The anti-bullying program has been presented in a dozen countries, touching the lives of 25 million people so far.
Rising to the challenge
Larry Scott’s two children were students at Columbine High School during the time of the shooting, in which two students with guns and explosives killed 12 students and a teacher. His kids survived. But his niece, Rachel, did not.
Since the launch of Rachel’s Challenge, Scott has shared stories about his late niece to tens of thousands of students while traveling with the program. He is one of about 30 speakers hoping to stop the escalation of violence in schools.
Last week, more than two decades since the massacre, Scott replayed news coverage of the incident with HHS students, saying, “It was a day I’ll never forget.” But beyond the recapping the horrific acts carried out that April day in 1999, Scott was here to share the ways in which HHS students might take an active stance against bullying and change the school’s culture from within.
“We have to be aware of the prejudice we have toward other people and be willing to change,” Scott said, encouraging students to follow Rachel’s insistence that people deserve three chances.
Scott presented the crowd with Rachel’s Challenges: Look for the best in others. Dream big. Choose positive influences. Speak with kindness.
“Rachel was really good about choosing positive things in her life,” Scott said. “She was a positive person. She talked positive, she read positive books, she tried to hang around positive friends, she tried to watch positive movies. She’d walk into the room and just kind of picked everybody up.”
Scott noted that presenters receive weekly letters from students saying Rachel’s Challenges convinced them not to kill themselves, for a yearly estimate of 150 suicides prevented each year.
“Never quit. Never give up. Life is too short to give up,” Scott said.
‘Impact on the world’
Like Anne Frank, Rachel believed she would die young. At age 16, Rachel wrote in her diary, “This will be my last year, Lord. I’ve gotten what I can. Thank you.”
Scott played a video of his son, Jeff, who recalled how his cousin Rachel had been open about her beliefs about dying young in the months leading up to the shooting.
As Scott told the story, it was six weeks after Rachel’s death when a stranger named Frank who lived in another part of the country reached out to her father to say he’d been having dreams about Rachel’s eyes, with tears falling and watering the ground and that life sprouted from those tears in the ground. At first, the dream held no meaning to Rachel’s father. But one week later, the local sheriff’s department released her backpack, which had been being held as evidence because of the four bullet holes through it. Her father found Rachel’s diary inside the bag and on the last page was a picture of an eye that fit Frank’s vision. One of her teachers would tell him that Rachel had been drawing that very picture in class minutes before she died. Rachel even told that teacher, “I might have an impact on the world.”
Friends of Rachel
As the program wound to a close, Scott gave the students one final kindness challenge: “Start your own chain reaction with your family and your friends.”
Afterward, more than two dozen HHS students in grades 7th-12th gathered for a break-out group session with teachers Kacy Swinda and Dana Lindstrom, as well as Activities Director Meghan Potter, Student Council Co-Advisor, Senior Class Co-Advisor and HHS Secretary Carrie Fawkes.
The group, called “Friends of Rachel,” agreed to carry on Rachel’s legacy in the halls of HHS.
In a follow-up email to the Hibbing Daily Tribune, Fawkes wrote that students will be looking into ways to spread kindness, including hosting a Kindness Day in the future.
“It was a great group session and kids were very receptive,” Fawkes wrote.
To learn more, visit rachelschallenge.org.