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Healthy relationships the goal of Choose Respect after-school program

A couple of dozen middle-school kids hung out after the closing bell at Northdale Middle School not long ago to talk about something a lot more folks should be talking about: relationships. And what makes for a healthy one.

Not a bad idea in this relationship-challenged nation where the divorce rate is about 40 percent of all marriages and shocking violence sometimes erupts on normally tranquil school campuses. Oversimplified, we've got some problems getting along. This is the first in a series of occasional stories I'll write highlighting unique ways schools are tackling social problems.

At this Coon Rapids school in the Anoka-Hennepin District, one effort to increase harmony in classrooms and hallways is Choose Respect, a voluntary after-school program inspired by a violence-prevention initiative of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Division of Violence Prevention. After all, what starts in hallways as name-calling or belittling or pushing can escalate to violence.

Locally, Choose Respect is a student group that meets twice a month. It's supported by a partnership between Northdale and Alexandra House, a domestic abuse shelter in Blaine.

Students describe it these ways:

Choose Respect program tries to prevent problems
"We try to prevent, more than solve, problems,'' explained eighth-grader Lindsay Thaemert, 14.

That includes preventing name-calling, pushing, bullying and rumor spreading, said Frances Kannen, 12.

And racism, added Matt Swanson, an eighth-grader.

"School's tougher than most people think,'' added Mariah Clafin, 13.

"There's more bullying than people think, and lots of people get hurt from it,'' Swanson affirmed, which is why these kids learn ways to turn off anger and head off fights, or as they say: how to be respectful.

Aimed at 11 to 14-year-olds, the program is web-inspired with techie doodads that appeal to youths and a viral slogan: "Respect. Give it. Get it.'' The English and Spanish website developed by the CDC offers videos, music downloads and posters.

Youth violence considered public health problem
Why is the CDC involved? Youth violence is a public health problem. According to the CDC's most recent national data, from 2003, one in 11 high school students — 1.5 million young people — experienced physical dating violence, not including sexual or psychological violence.

Further, "It is preventable. We can help these kids have a better future,'' said Matthew Breiding, a behavioral scientist with the CDC who helped develop the web site.

"It's awareness building,'' said Dawn Rutt, violence prevention coordinator from Alexandra House and co-facilitator of the school program. She piloted the program at Northdale last year and is now starting a second one at Coon Rapids Middle School.

"The biggest thing I've seen with kids is that they start to see the verbal and emotional abuse. They can recognize those, and they see threats and intimidation in a different way now," she said. There's less name-calling and intimidating behavior. Kids don't call each other "ho" or "bitch," terms they previously considered acceptable, she said.

Rutt hopes teaching middle school children acceptable behavior and how to deal with physical violence and emotional and verbal abuse will help them head off problems in high school, where national statistics show one in five teens report physical or sexual dating violence.

The middle-schoolers learn respectful ways to deal with relationship problems and then brainstorm ways to spread the word. They write songs, skits and games, put up bulletin boards, name a Respectful Student of the Month and, perhaps most importantly, take firm stands in school hallways. They're planning activities for their second annual Choose Respect Week in May.

So, what do you do if you see a friend in a disrespectful relationship, say one student calling another a name like "loser" or otherwise picking on someone, Dawn Rutt asked the kids.

You say "I don't like that,'' or "I'm worried," or "Can I help you?'' the kids answered.

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Comments (2)

How great to hear the kids' own voices. Bravo!

I'm looking forward to reading this series, Cynthia.

It's a very big step when children see verbal and emotional abuse as violence rather than something so common, too often in schools and homes, in the media and on video games, that it is acceptable. And giving them a safe environment in which to admit to the pain of being a victim of this violence is so important. I work with children in a supportive transitional housing program; after 12 years I am still shocked at how even very young children who have experienced great verbal and emotional abuse over a period of time become emotionally passive about violence. I too am looking forward to your series, Cynthia.