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Students pledge to say 'hello'

Weeklong program focuses on respect, inclusion and anti-bullyin

February 18, 2016
By J.T. Whitehouse , The Town Crier

The Poland Local School District Feb. 8 to 12 made a Sandy Hook Promise, a pledge that focused on respect and inclusion by participating in ''Start With Hello Week.''

Sandy Hook Promise is a national nonprofit organization that was formed after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School Dec. 14, 2012, in Newtown, Conn.

''Start With Hello'' is the group's latest effort to create more inclusive and connected classrooms. The organization said many young people feel left out, invisible and alone, and this often can lead to depression, bullying and violence.

Article Photos

Photos by J.T. Whitehouse, Town Crier
Putting together the final day of 'Start with Hello Week' were Sandy Hook Promise program manager Sarah Malich, Poland McKinley Elementary School counselor Wendy Butch, Poland Middle School counselor Mary Jo Lukach, and Sandy Hook Promise guest speaker Andre Elliott of the Youngstown Juvenile Justice Center.

The aim of ''Start With Hello'' is to teach kids how to reach out and include everyone.

''Social isolation is an epidemic,'' Poland Middle School counselor Mary Jo Lukach said. ''We want to form an environment where acceptance and ending isolation is the norm.''

She said middle school is where a student is molded and what is instilled at this age will carry into adult life.

To place the focus on those ideals, the entire week was full of themes and exercises that encouraged inclusion.

Elementary and middle school counselors as well as Poland School Resource Officer Steve Kent spent weeks planning for the special programs.

Monday was ''Hey Day.'' All the students were encouraged to make and wear a name tag. They were to greet others by saying ''hello'' and using their first name in the hall, at lunch and in classrooms.

At each school, a large poster board was hung up in the halls and students could sign or write ''hello'' to show their commitment to reach out and connect with someone who may feel isolated.

On Tuesday, it was wearing green to ''put a go on saying hello.'' All students were encouraged to wear green, and various events were staged in each school building, including passing out happy face emoticons to those who needed a smile.

The week's program spilled over into the evening Tuesday at the Poland versus Lakeview boys basketball game. Big Dogs from the high school attended the game and sat with Little Dogs from the elementary schools. The middle school student leaders and student council attended the game to pass out ''Start With Hello'' flyers and stickers.

On Wednesday, the theme was ''you are a superhero,'' and all students and faculty were encouraged to dress in a way to express what makes them unique and super. Some dressed in superhero costumes like Supergirl or Spider-Man, while others went for sports jerseys or T-shirts on hobbies or interests.

Among some of the early activities were connecting with other schools.

Counselor Lauren Mechling said Poland set up Skyping sessions at Union, Dobbins and the middle school to connect with Austintown, Boardman, Leetonia, Sebring and Struthers students.

She said the goal was to create discourse between students from different districts and explore the problem of isolation while brainstorming how to make ''Start With Hello'' a lasting impact.

''In Skype, we were able to connect with Boardman Glenwood and Center middle schools and Canfield Village Middle School and talk about bullying,'' Poland McKinley Elementary School counselor Wendy Butch said. ''Our kids found out that other schools have the same problems they do. For some teachers, it meant Skyping for the first time, but with our tech people standing by, it went pretty smooth.''

Wednesday afternoon ended the week with the ''Hello'' assembly, featuring Andre Elliott of the Youngstown Juvenile Justice Center. He was representing the Sandy Hook Promise along with program manager Sarah Malich of Newtown.

Elliott began his talk with the facts of what happened on Dec. 14, 2012. He told students how one young man walked into the school and took the lives of 20 first-graders and six teachers.

''Think about a time when you felt left out or shut out,'' Elliott said. ''Millions feel that way every day and if it is left go, can lead to problems, depression and pulling away from society.''

Elliott told students it is up to each of them to take action. He said there are three steps to take. The first is to see someone who is isolated. The second is to reach out and show support to that person, and the third is to start by saying ''hello.''

He also urged students to sit with someone new at lunch, but the bottom line was to make sure no one felt isolated or alone.

Lukach added that the Prevent And Neutralize Drug and Alcohol Abuse students, a group of leaders at the middle school, put together a video for the week's program that is on the school's website at The video reinforces the message of stopping social isolation.



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