Conference teaches young students to Speak Up
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Back in the day, we always had to tiptoe around Biff the Bully and Gladys the Gossip. Walking to and from school (uphill into the wind in both directions, of course) could feel like going through a combat zone. The halls of academia sometimes felt hellish, not hallowed.
We had to eat the same baloney-on-white sandwich all the time – unless Biff took it away. And if we dared to complain to our tormentors or, oh my word, had the audacity to tattle on them to a teacher or administrator, we could expect something much worse in retaliation.
We thought we had it so tough.
Then we look at today’s kids, with their easy access to the internet and other modern conveniences, and we think they have it so easy. What could possibly be amiss compared to what we went through?
The third annual Speak Up Stand Up Save a Life Youth Conference on Tuesday at Grand Canyon University Arena answered that question as directly as a punch in the nose. Things have gotten much, much worse in schools these days. The people who work there profess it, and the suicide rate among young people proves it.
The biggest culprit? Those modern conveniences. The internet enables Biff and Gladys to do their dirty work in private.
“It’s easy to hide behind social media and call someone a punk, ugly, dirty, which is why it’s getting worse nowadays,” said Dr. Lily Matos DeBlieux, who along with Gina Godbehere started the Speak Up organization. “They can be having a beautiful day and, all of a sudden, they open up social media and there they are – people are talking about them, sending out bad pictures about them.
“Technology’s an awesome thing, but I think it’s much worse today for students because that’s one more tool for bullies.”
The anti-bullying crowd has a tool of its own in Speak Up, which was in such demand this year that registration, which was thought to be full before Christmas, had to be reopened.
There were 156 schools represented, 48 more than last year, and an estimated 5,000 sixth- to ninth-graders came to the conference as representatives assigned to report back to their classmates and implement the event’s many messages.
But this is about more than just the schools. There also were 12 police chiefs, eight assistant chiefs and 138 officers from 28 agencies. It’s a grassroots movement that has grown quickly because of its coalition.
“It’s schools, law enforcement and business leaders all coming forward to make a difference,” said Godbehere, an attorney in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. “There’s a real need right now. Suicide rates are out of control. We’re losing one child every five days. We’re losing more people to opiate overdoses than in car accidents.”
The opioid crisis is believed to be another sign of the desperation too many young people feel to escape the toxicity of their daily environment. School officials are desperate for antidotes and believe that the key – as the organization’s name suggests – is to get students to speak up.
“Kids who have never spoken up before feel empowered, and it’s a beautiful thing because you know what? Kids want to listen to kids,” said Matos DeBlieux, Superintendent of the Pendergast Elementary School District. “If it’s cool to speak up and it’s cool to save a life, they’re going to do it. They are the ones who have to make that stand so that their friends and other students feel safe, don’t feel bullied and don’t feel like they want to commit suicide.”
Speak Up aggressively fought those feelings by having representatives available to do counseling during the event. Organizers happily spoke of the positive feedback they got after last year’s conference, particularly from schools that established anonymous texting to give the students a stress-free means to report if they suspect someone might be facing depression issues or worse.
“We heard so many amazing things,” Godbehere said. “We heard from every school that introduced anonymous texting how they got help early to people who needed help.”
One school documented that it prevented four potential suicides. At another, a student who was cutting himself was convinced by the conference’s message to seek help.
Tuesday’s proceedings began with welcomes from Godbehere, Matos DeBlieux and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.
“This is where school safety starts,” Montgomery said.
The Cre8tive Theatre Troupe’s skit laid out a number of scenarios that can lead to depression or even suicide.
The keynote talk was by Jeremy Anderson, who has written seven books on the subject and told of how he acted out as a child because, among other things, he has never known his biological father.
“It’s powerful,” Matos DeBlieux said of Anderson’s message. “It makes everybody believe what they should believe – that they control their own destiny, that they’re special and they’re unique, and God gave them their own unique talents so that in their own way they can make a difference in this world. They need to believe and need someone else to believe in them.”
There also were “Warning Signs” and “How to Have the Conversation” videos as well as awards and workshops for the students plus a separate session for adults.
“I’ve spoken at national conferences, and I’ve had adults sob on my shoulder and say, ‘I need this, too,’” Matos DeBlieux said.
All told, it was more than five hours of reaching out and caring and changing young minds. As Peterson said during his talk, “What can we accomplish when we care enough?”
Biff and Gladys might not like the answer.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].