As students across the country walked out of class on March 14 to protest school violence and advocate for gun control, others took a different approach that seemingly targeted the root issues fueling deadly school shootings.

“We are doing a ‘Walk Up’ campaign where students will approach other students that maybe are sitting alone in the cafeteria and say something nice to them for 17 straight days in honor of the students in Florida,” DuBois Area Middle School Principal Michael Maholtz told the Courier Express.

This is a wonderful case study in proactive character formation. Rather than relying on political policy changes to address generic abstracted problems, this program addresses the immediate, concrete, and local expressions of the problem. This program tells an alternative story. Solutions are not exclusively to be found in state capitols or national legislatures. Rather, they are to be found locally and addressed simply. Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture sociologist James Davison Hunter Hunter writes, “This narrative integrates the self into communal purposes binding dissimilar others to common ends.... Character outside of a lived community, the entanglements of complex social relationships and their shared story, is impossible.”

Students across the country walked out of class on March 14 to protest gun violence in the wake of a school shooting last month at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead. The shooter, a troubled former student who was reportedly ostracized by his classmates, struggled with mental illness and made previous threats of violence that were ignored by law enforcement. The shooting sparked calls for restrictions on gun ownership from many politicians and many students at the school and beyond, culminating in the massive nationwide student walk out March 14.

Students and administrators at the Pennsylvania middle school decided to do something that would have an impact at their school. “Instead of walking out of school on March 14, (we encouraged) students to walk up – walk up to the kid who sits along at lunch and invite him to your group, walk up to the kid who sits quietly in the corner of the room and sit next to her, smile and say, ‘Hi,’” guidance counselor Maureen Gregorio said. “It’s time to put a stop to the bullying in schools,” she added, “this is only a start but is a step in the right direction.”

The lesson blended well with the school’s Extended Learning Opportunities program, which centers on character education. During a segment on March 14, students watched a video titled, “Empathy Can Change the World.” “It’s a really quick video that’s real nice with students who are talking about things, not in particular that they can do about this movement, but just in general how you can recognize students who might need you to talk with them or ask them to sit with you, or just recognize that they’re there,” Gregorio told the Courier Express. “Our goal is to encourage students to be kind to others, and that being kind matters.”

Assistant Superintendent Wendy Benton said the decision to focus on reaching out instead of walking out was also about safety.
“The concern is not necessarily with students walking out, the concern is, what are they walking out to?” she said.
“ … We wanted to encourage them to support and commemorate this tragic event in a safe, positive way,” Gregorio said.
“But our hopes is that this isn’t just a 17-day event — that this will be a way of lifestyle change that they’ll be kind and courteous to people as a lifelong skill,” Maholtz said.

Teachers and principals interested in character formation work in their school will find the UK's Jubilee Centre useful.

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