WAKEFIELD – When Larry Scott heard the news last week that a 17-year-old had opened fire at an Ohio high school, killing three students; he could only shake his head and ask why.
Scott, 54, knows all too well what the families of students at the school are going through.
On April 20, his family will mark the 13th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, in which two seniors at their Littleton, Colo. school killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher, before turning their weapons on themselves.
His niece, Rachel Joy Scott, 17 – the first victim of the tragedy – was gunned down outside. She was shot in the back at least four times as the shooters entered the suburban high school to begin their rampage.
“I can’t believe this is still happening. It seems like it’s the same problem and we’re not addressing it in our nation,” Scott recalled of his reaction to the news.
Scott told his story Monday during two assemblies at The Prout School to promote “Rachel’s Challenge,” an anti-bullying and violence abatement program founded by his brother Darrell Scott, Rachel’s father. The program promotes a desire for positive changes in the way students treat others by focusing on the many acts of kindness and compassion Rachel was known for providing.
“It was a huge loss to lose Rachel,” Scott said. “Columbine was a tough time for us and for our whole family.”
The story moved some students to tears, with several later volunteering to tell stories from their own lives of having been bullied or made to feel worthless.
Video and audio footage of several of Rachel’s peers speaking about the ways she had helped them in her life, and poignant excerpts from six diaries found after her death, present a vivid portrait of the caring, kind-hearted young woman.
In one vignette, Adam, a friend of Rachel, talks about how she had saved his life. It wasn’t related to the shooting, but rather, through her friendship, she had saved him from committing suicide earlier as he had been distraught over being bullied because he “looked different.”
The week after she was killed, Rachel’s family received a call from the police department informing them that they had her backpack. Looking beyond the four bullet holes in the bag, they noticed a diary Rachel had kept. This led them to pull together six diaries she drew and had written in about how important it was to show kindness to others.
Her family learned how Rachel had reached out in particular to special needs students, new students at her school and students who were picked on by others. She always wanted them to know that they should not feel alone despite their circumstances.
In the months following the tragedy, these diaries would form the foundation of “Rachel’s Challenge,” with her story being heard by more than 16 million students and others in all 50 states and five foreign countries since the program began nearly 13 years ago, according to Scott. He said he now spends 180 days a year on the road promoting Rachel’s message.
“Next year, we’re hoping to be in 2,500 schools,” he said.
Although Rachel’s religious beliefs are not part of the program, which is promoted mostly in public schools, Scott said in an interview with The Rhode Island Catholic that Rachel was a Christian of very deep faith.
“She believed in God very strongly in her heart,” he said. “Her life was given to kindness and compassion. She was a light in the darkness of Columbine High School.”
One of her diary entries portrays her eternal optimism and desire to help others.
“I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion then it will start a chain reaction of the same,” Rachel wrote in her diary.
One drawing in particular from her diary caught the attention of the audience.
It depicts a pair of eyes crying 13 tears over a rose. The drops seem to darken as blood as they reach the flower.
Some have interpreted this as a premonition Rachel may have had of her impending death.
One of Rachel’s teachers recalls in a video vignette a conversation she had with Rachel in which she expressed a feeling that her life would have an impact on the world.
Many of the students, who were in preschool or kindergarten at the time of the tragedy, had tears in their eyes as they listened to the presentation. Some of the videos shown included testimonials from classmates who shared the ways in which Rachel went out of her way to befriend those who seemed lonely or withdrawn.
Following the first assembly, 80 students, 20 representing each grade, attended a training to create a Friends of Rachel Club at the school.
“This is an inclusive club, not an exclusive club,” Scott stressed. “This needs to grow and grow.”
The goal of the club is to identify ways that students can treat each other better through kindness and compassion, and to develop methods to reach out to new students and others who may feel alone at school.
“Every school has problems because we’re all human beings, and some are not very nice,” Scott said.
He spoke of his own experiences being bullied as a seventh-grader after transitioning to a new school. Later, he learned that the eighth-grader who had bullied him was being physically abused at home, accounting for the many scratches he always seemed to have.
Scott then opened up the floor to the students, with several volunteering to stand before their peers and share stories of pain they have experienced in their own lives.
Sophomore Tiernan Chase spoke poignantly about being bullied as a student in a public elementary school by peers who didn’t even try to understand her.
She said she experienced reverse racism and was picked on for being chubby when she was younger.
She was assumed to be a “rich, white girl,” but she came from a broken home, and has a brother with mild special education needs.
“My dad is a drug addict, I don’t know him,” said Chase.
“They didn’t know that my brother, mom and grandmother worked so hard to help other people,” she said.
The experience has taught her a very valuable life lesson.
“I have really big compassion for people with special needs,” Chase said.
Sophomore Bryan McCormack, a founding member of Prout’s Friends of Rachel Club, said the group intends to stay true to the mission it has been charged with carrying out. The club will begin by holding meetings once a week.
“It will be a chance for us to come together as a community to keep the spirit alive. Once the speaker leaves, the idea of what he is teaching us will remain in the school,” he said.
Freshman Chandler Pettigrew said he found the presentation on Rachel to be very powerful.
“She impacted a lot of people,” he said.
Freshman Alexandra Pavarini said that students stand to benefit greatly from the program. Many students, she feels, do not take into account the full scope of their actions when it comes to cyber bullying – making fun of or attacking their peers online – the type of bullying she has witnessed most often among students.
“Students are more apt to do that,” she said.
Father Joseph Upton, chaplain at The Prout School, and assistant pastor at St. Francis of Assisi, Wakefield, said the program was a wonderful opportunity for the school.
“I think it’s a perfect message for a Catholic school,” he said. “The inner strength Rachel had was drawn from her faith.”
The Domestic Violence Resource Center of South County sponsored Scott’s presentation at Prout, the first Catholic school in Rhode Island to host “Rachel’s Challenge.” Scott this week is also introducing the program to students at South Kingstown and Narragansett High Schools.
Megan Whelan, an educator for the Domestic Violence Resource Center, said the local “Rachel’s Challenge” presentations are funded through a grant. She hopes to apply for additional grants in order to introduce the program to even more Rhode Island schools in the future.