Education

Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School students take lead on violence prevention

Older students teach freshmen how and when to intervene

Senior Agam Gill leads a discussion about suicide prevention with freshmen during homeroom at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. The 30-minute session was part of the twice monthly Mentors in Violence Prevention program. (Cliff Jette /The Gazette)
Senior Agam Gill leads a discussion about suicide prevention with freshmen during homeroom at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. The 30-minute session was part of the twice monthly Mentors in Violence Prevention program. (Cliff Jette /The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — After playing a sobering video about suicide prevention, Tasha Gilkison turned to a class of freshmen.

“This is another thing you could prevent,” Gilkison, 16, told her younger peers at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids. “If you talk to other people about it.”

She and Agam Gill, 17, were leading a conversation about noticing warning signs of suicide — which include talking about wanting to die, mood swings and sleeping too much or too little — last week as part of the school’s Mentors in Violence Program.

The program, in its second year at Kennedy, aims to empower students to address violence among their peers.

“If you see something, try to do something about it,” Gill told a homeroom class Wednesday. “Even if it’s something small, don’t just assume someone else is going to do it.”

Nearly 40 students at Kennedy are mentors in the program, said Jenny Wagner, who advises the group known as MVP. The mentors, who are juniors and seniors, spend two days a month in homeroom classes with the school’s 460 freshmen.

“As adults, we need to be acknowledging that we might not always see it how they see it, and we might give examples or describe things in ways that are really not how it is now,” Wagner said. “ ... They’re using their own language and using examples from their own lives.”

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Students discuss various forms of violence — suicide, dating violence, fights — throughout the school year.

Following Kennedy High’s lead, Washington High administrators plan to boost their Mentors in Violence Program as they work to decrease arrests.

More than 50 students at each school have been arrested at Kennedy and Washington this school year, according to the Cedar Rapids Police Department. Most arrests have been for disorderly conduct.

Kennedy Principal Jason Kline said it typically takes years for the Mentors in Violence Program to have a meaningful effect as freshmen who have been through program become upperclassmen.

“But I think we see a lot of it already,” said Kline, who advises the program with Wagner. “Students seem to be a little more cognizant of: This is what I have to do when I see these things, and what to do and how to prevent these things from happening.”

Next school year, Kennedy plans to allow sophomores to serve as mentors, and mentors will be able to earn partial class credit for participating.

In Liz Driskell’s homeroom this week, students discussed how suicide might not seem personal until it happens to someone close.

Driskell, who teaches orchestra, shared a story with her class about a middle school student of hers who died by suicide eight years ago.

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“I missed every single warning sign that was there,” she told students. “This was a kid who loved band, who was really great at playing the flute, who would practice after school. Then, all of a sudden, he never showed for up for lessons after school.”

Since then, Driskell said she looks for warning signs among her students every day.

What bystanders can do to help, said 17-year-old Gill, is a key piece of the Mentors in Violence Program.

“Everyone’s a bystander,” he said. “What you can do — and how you have the power to stop situations — is a pretty big lesson that I’ve found interesting.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis or distress, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support, information or local resources.

• Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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