By Leda Abkenari, Jamie Lattin, Stephanie Liu, and Zoe Edelman, Staff Writers and Videographer
// Kindness is in our DNA. Despite the overall accepting atmosphere at Acalanes, the community is not immune to the inevitable effects of bullying, discrimination, and general oppression.
This message, however simple, had a profound impact on campus when the Breaking Down the Walls (BDTW) program brought its message to Acalanes. BDTW staff member Stu Cabe led approximately 310 students within a six-hour long program on Jan. 24 and 25 in addition to a mandatory assembly for sophomores and juniors on Jan. 23.
The Learning for Living website defines the program as “designed to unify, empower, and engage every student to create a positive and supportive campus culture.”
BDTW founder Phil Boyte visited the Acalanes campus four years ago during Care Week, a time where students reflect on their unique experience. His work inspired the administration to bring the program back on a larger scale.
BDTW began at a school dealing with gang activity but evolved to spread kindness across a variety of campuses, according to BDTW staff member Stu Cabe.
“They just wanted to get two gang factions in the same room and have them talk about commonalities; then it quickly went to schools that weren’t necessarily having those types of problems, just general population, and now that’s actually what its focus is,” Cabe said.
Generally, students said that Acalanes didn’t have an obvious bullying problem, but there was a disconnect among people in the community and their interactions.
“I don’t think there’s a bullying problem so much as an apathy problem,” junior Shannon Ohleyer said. “Kids aren’t going out of their way to be cruel to each other. Rather, kids are just not very considerate all the time.”
Cabe was asked to speak at Acalanes by Associate Principal Andrea Powers and Leadership teacher Katherine Walton.
The program was lead by Cabe and Acalanes senior leaders, who were nominated by teachers, and underwent a one-day training program on Jan. 23.
“They’re all seniors that were recognized by teachers as being strong leaders and good role models. They did a phenomenal job at building relationships and being great role models throughout the entire day,” Walton said.
The training meeting allowed the senior leaders to run through a compressed version of the six-hour session, according to senior leader Gracie Guichard.
“We ran through a couple of the activities, and then we did all of the student-led activities. We also got insight into what exactly the goals of the program were and how we could best serve it,” Guichard said.
Student participants were initially limited to those nominated by teachers for the experience, but the six-hour sessions were later opened to any students wanting to participate.
“The speaker was interesting, which made me want to learn more,” sophomore Nick Emtage said.
The program cost approximately $10,000. Despite the hefty price tag, the Acalanes administration believes it was a valuable investment.
“My goal would be that every student at Acalanes walks onto campus and feels a place where they feel safe and feel supported. I think it requires listening. I think it requires building time for conversation. I think it requires understanding and empathy. We have to create opportunities for students to dialogue because it doesn’t always come naturally,” Leadership teacher Katherine Walton said.
Despite the cost, the impact of Stu Cabe’s work was worth the financial toll, according to Walton.
“Mr. Bell and I asked Parents Club to help fund this along with some ASB funds and try it. I think we’re really happy with how it went. But obviously, we want to be evaluated before we think about doing it again and getting all student feedback and not just what I’ve heard,” Walton said.
Students were led through games and activities designed to boost a spirit of camaraderie and kindness.
“We all played a lot of games together as a group, and then we transitioned into a part where we were led into groups of ten or 12 by senior leaders. Towards the end of the day, we were all back as one large group and led by Stu,” sophomore Megan Baginski said.
Those who were able to attend the program felt an improved sense of community.
“I think that the program has definitely brought a lot of people together. I connected to people who I have never even seen before,” Torralba said. “One of the really big pillars of the speaker’s belief is that laughter and joy bring people together better than anything else. It was all just having fun and giggling and laughing and just being happy together.”
Cabe routinely spoke to the group, highlighting the significance and purpose of the activities.
“Kindness is intentional, not random. We have to make sure that random acts of kindness need to be random, but not the way we live our life,” Cabe said.
One specific analogy Cabe used throughout the assembly and six-hour sessions referred to small and big elephants. According to Cabe, big elephants stand up for what’s right, while little elephants stand only for themselves. Cabe encouraged “little elephants” to recognize their negative behavioral patterns and shift their self-involved mannerisms.
“You can wake up any day of your life and not be a small elephant. Every day of your life is an opportunity to be a big elephant. Your past is your past. The rearview mirror is a lot smaller than the window in front,” Cabe said.
Students responded well to the fun, interactive nature of BDTW.
“It’s not like other assemblies that are like, ‘Stop bullying. It’s a bad thing,’” senior leader Bronte Torralba said. “It shows you that there are other sides to this and it helps you empathize with people and connect to people you never thought you would connect with before.”
BDTW recommends a group of 15 percent freshmen, 35 percent sophomores, 35 percent juniors, and 15 percent seniors.
According to the BDTW website, “Having the older students blended with the younger students provides the right amount of maturity and leadership to make the program successful.”
Acalanes followed these guidelines, primarily centering the program around sophomores and juniors in addition to implementing senior leaders.
Although the program did not reach every student at Acalanes due to limited space, students are hopeful that it will have a ripple effect.
“I know it affected my mindset a lot, and I assume it has affected the people that went to it, and I think that will end up spreading through the way that we treat others,” Baginski said.
As for the students who were not able to attend, the likelihood that the program will become an annual event is high.
“I think if you could manage financially to make it a two or three-year rotation to get more and more kids through it, then your whole campus is hearing this message of kindness as a choice, ” Walton said.
However, the program took a toll on student schedules. Because the six-hour sessions were held during the school day, students missed class to participate.
“It didn’t really affect anything for me,” sophomore Evan Mirabella said. “My teachers were all okay with it, and I just got to make up what I missed during the weekend.”
Others suffered setbacks in their classes as a result of attending the all-day program.
“I’m missing three days of school in a row, and given that it’s only a four day week, I’ve only gone to class one day. It will be a lot to catch up on, but I think that it’s worth it,” Torralba said.
Senior leaders like Torralba had to miss even more school than underclassmen attendees.
“Because I was a leader, I missed fifth period on Wednesday for training and then I opted into being a leader on both Thursday and Friday. I missed a lot of class,” senior Julia Helvey said.
Many students chose not to participate.
“It’s my junior year, and my classes are important and challenging. I did not want to miss school for an entire day. It would be a hassle to try and catch up what I missed in any of my classes,” junior Yicheng Yao said.
Cabe emphasized that the schoolwork students missed during the six-hour session would not matter in the long run. He made the point that the program would be worth the lost day and can help create a kinder atmosphere at Acalanes.
“Everything’s like a spoke in the wheel, and the more spokes you have, the stronger the wheel. If you have a spirit week, that’s a spoke in the wheel. If you have blood drives, and coat drives, that’s a spoke in the wheel. I’m here to help the wheel get stronger,” Cabe said.