MUSCLE SHOALS — Some of the students attending the Rachel’s Challenge program at Muscle Shoals High School on Tuesday weren’t yet born when the deadly shooting took place at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.
Still others were very young at the time. Regardless, the audience of fifth- through 12th-graders knew about Columbine and recognized the name, Rachel Scott.
At 17 and a junior at Columbine High School, Scott was the first of 13 people (12 students and one teacher) to die at the hands of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who also were students at the school. Harris and Klebold shot their victims to death while unleashing dozens of pipe bombs throughout the school. They later killed themselves.
Rachel’s story has emerged in the form of a program that has now spread to every state and several other countries, reaching more than 2.5 million students annually.
Scott family friend, Nicole Voelkel, is one of 60 presenters who travels the country with the program touting non-violence, kindness and compassion.
Rachel’s father, Darrell Scott, began the nonprofit organization that provides school programs, trainings and community events in the hopes of motivating people to value all walks of life showing respect, kindness and compassion.
Voelkel doesn’t refer to Rachel’s Challenge as an anti-bullying program but one that trains individuals to be intentionally kind.
“We’re not here promoting random acts of kindness, because we believe in being intentional and making the effort to treat everyone respectfully, even if you disagree with how they act and what they stand for,” Voelkel said.
Scott’s life and writings were the inspiration for Darrell Scott to begin the organization, which has evolved and expanded during the past 13 years.
After her death, Rachel’s family found six journals and an essay she’d written calling for a chain reaction of kindness and compassion. It was titled, “My Ethics, My Codes of Life.”
It was that writing that outlined the basis for what has come to be known as Rachel’s Challenge.
Some of those challenges include: looking for the best in others thus eliminating prejudice, treating others as you want to be treated, choosing positive influences in your life and speaking with kindness instead of cruelty.
On the video presentation Rachel’s siblings were interviewed including her brother, Craig, who was in the school library the day of the shooting. He told of the shooters’ unabashed cruelty as they killed students including his friend Isaiah Shoels, a good-natured football player who was one of the few black students in the school.
“Me, Matt and Isaiah were huddled under the desks, and we were really scared,” Craig Scott said. “They began to make fun of Isaiah for being black. He said he wanted to see his mom. They shot him with a shot gun. The last thing he heard was racial slurs.”
There were stories on the video of friends telling about the impact Rachel made in their lives.
A new girl at the school was feeling lonely and isolated, sitting alone at a lunch table one day after a group of girls shunned her. Rachel saw the girl sitting alone, walked over to her and invited her to come sit with her and her friends. The girl declined. Rachel went back to her table and gathered her friends and the group went to the girl’s table.
Another former Columbine student tells on the video of his encounter with Rachel, whom he didn’t know.
The only black student in his class and from a troubled home, he admitted to not wanting to be in school thus acting out by bullying other students.
Rachel stayed after class one day to speak to him alone and told him she wasn’t scared of him and that she would like for the two of them to be friends. He listened, but didn’t respond.
Soon after that encounter and after the Columbine shootings, he heard her brother on television talking about Rachel.
“It broke me,” he said. “I sat down and wrote her a letter telling her how she’d made a difference in my life, in how I thought about life.”
Rachel died four days after her junior prom.
At her funeral, guests signed her casket. Voelkel explained that it was the time of year for yearbook signing and Rachel would never get to do it so, “everyone signed her coffin.”
Part of the program under Rachel’s Challenge included a training session with 100 students who were selected to begin the Friends of Rachel Club. That organization at Muscle Shoals High School is expected to host its first event next week.
“We don’t believe there are bullies; there are just people who act out and haven’t learned to be kind and compassionate,” Voelkel said. “We take the training group and they share their stories and do some role playing and we talk about what needs to change at school. Rachel made a difference at her school. Her impact has been greater than the scope of her life. We’re teaching these kids that they can impact people, too.”
Muscle Shoals Superintendent Jeff Wooten said bringing the program to the school district was a pre-emptive step to raise awareness that bullying, or cruelty in general, won’t be tolerated.
“I’d seen this program over the summer and it really appealed to me, not as an anti-bullying thing so much, but as a long-term way of behaving and living,” Wooten said. “It isn’t a quick thing where the feeling wears off, and we’re back to the same next week. We want this to be real for the students so that it can make a difference.”
There was a communitywide Rachel’s Challenge meeting at the high school auditorium Tuesday night.
Lisa Singleton-Rickman can be reached at 256-740-5735 or lisa.singleton-rickman@TimesDaily.com.