standing Chariho High School

Chariho High School. Sun file photo

WOOD RIVER JCT. — Adopted by the Chariho school district last summer, the iStand program contains a single, simple message: “if you see something, do something.”

The objective of the iStand initiative is to change school culture by empowering students to stand up to sexual and other types of violence.

Chariho student Anna LaCroix spurred the introduction of the program when she gave a “TED” talk last year on the subject of sexual violence at the University of Rhode Island. TED talks, which are named after their initial focus on technology, entertainment and design, are brief talks on a wide range of subjects.

“Anna was a big catalyst for looking deeper into sexual violence and bystander training programs,” Chariho Assistant Principal Andrea Spas explained. “I believe the School Committee also had some questions after Anna’s TED talk and wanted to know a little bit more about the programs that were out there.”

School Committee member Lisa Macaruso, who is also the disability coordinator for students at the University of Rhode Island, said LaCroix’s talk had resonated with her on many levels.

“I heard her message as a woman, a mother, a mental health advocate and a Chariho School Committee member,” she said. “It was obvious to me that I could use these roles to amplify Anna’s voice and connect her ideas to an action plan. I was already well aware of the transformational work Keith Labelle was doing at URI and across the country with his iStand bystander intervention program. And, I knew the Chariho learning community was receptive to addressing bystander intervention at the middle school level if it could be done in a developmentally appropriate way.”

Labelle, of URI’s Community, Equity and Diversity Department, is the creator of iStand, which has been implemented at the university since 2014.

“The iStand concept can be applied to any kind of harassment, violence, discrimination, sexism, homophobia, racism and preventing sexual violence,” he said. “One of the core components of it is basically, if you see something, do something about it.”

URI students participating in the iStand program take a full semester class on bystander training taught by Labelle. They then become iStand interns.

“Being an iStand intern means that students have to do peer-to-peer educational programs, presentations, awareness booths and host a bystander intervention event about preventing sexual violence on campus,” Labelle said.

After hearing a presentation by Labelle last summer, administrators at Chariho began looking at ways to adapt the iStand program to middle and high school students and broaden the scope to address more than sexual violence.

“Keith did two sessions — I believe they were about three or four hours long,” Spas said. “It’s a pretty intense training with our health teachers, school psychologist, social workers, I think our nurses may have been there, and our school counselors. Bystander training — ways to stand up and say something if you see something and ways to advocate and promote awareness of sexual violence, specifically, but schools can adapt it to be more broad, so we’re looking at bullying and just respecting one another and being respectful citizens within the school buildings.”

Teachers were briefed on the iStand program in November.

“Our health and PE [physical education] teachers are going to look at how to embed more sexual violence and awareness advocacy training in the health curriculum,” Spas said. “It’s already there, but we want to focus more on the awareness and advocacy piece. That is perfect timing, because we’re in the process of revising our health curriculum.”

Macaruso said she was a strong supporter of empowering students to make meaningful changes in their school and social cultures.

“Bystander intervention training is not limited to sexual assault: substance abuse, bullying, domestic violence, and suicidal ideation are all areas that students want to address with their peers but might not have the vocabulary to do so,” she said. “I’m appreciative, though not surprised, that our Chariho Charger administration, teachers, and students saw this as an opportunity strengthen our students’ voices. In doing so, we reduce the risk of physical harm to our students while simultaneously increasing mental health.”

LaCroix said she hoped the iStand message would make a positive difference throughout the district.

“As the year progresses, I’m sure the student body will hear more about it and it will help prevent these actions in the schools, as well as in the community,” she said. “I think the students are changing how they interact with each other. Some of them might not, but it will help others … It feels like we’re more of a community and everyone is respecting everyone and looking out for each other.”

cdrummond@thewesterlysun.com

@cynthiadrummon4