Stopping the Violence

One High School's Peacemaking
This is a true story as related by a colleague of Tom's in a 1999 letter. It's about healing and forgiveness and togetherness that took place among high school students in Ignacio, Colorado. It seems we could all learn something from their experience.

First, a word about Ignacio. It is a small town that rests in the Southern Ute Indian Reservation of southwestern Colorado. Ignacio is a multi-ethnic community. A somewhat balanced mixture of Native Americans, Hispanics, and Anglos, as well as a few African Americans, have lived together here for many years, though with somewhat a history of some ethnic rivalries. New frictions have arisen with the Tribe's successes in oil drilling and casino operations. But for one morning, some high school students seemed to transcend those rivalries and frictions.

An assembly was organized by some students at Ignacio High school on the morning of April 22, 1999, two days after the Columbine massacre. The assembly was organized by an informal group of students. The principal gave the OK and sent out a notice for all students to proceed to the gym. A junior girl, acting as the MC, invited students forward to say whatever was on their minds. At first it was mostly girls reading poems and statements they had written.

At one point the feeling in the room began to shift. One young man climbed down from the far side of the bleachers. As he walked forward, he seemed way out of his comfort zone, since he had a very nervous walk and a look on his face as if he was about to take a step from which there would be no turning back.

As he spoke, at one point, he said his voice was shaking, though he sounded pretty clear and strong as he described how he felt as someone who had been teased and picked on. The students applauded, acknowledging his courage, and then began to follow his example.
Ignacio students
Some other students came out to ask why it has to take a terrible event to get people to respect each other, or to act with kindness. About five more students spoke, and then another junior reminded students that Ignacio had lost several people in crashes recently. "Prom's coming up, and I want everyone to be careful out there," he pleaded. He began to call some of his friends up front, one by one, and talked about how special they were to him. Then his coaches.

With about eight guys standing facing the crowd in a close group, the boy's arm around one of his friend's shoulders, he began to call others down. "Mark, if you're my friend, come on down here. Earl, if you're my friend, c'mon down." Then, in an unforgettable moment, he spoke loudly into the mike, "Anyone who is a friend of mine, come on down here."

The entire student body rose to its feet and descended the bleachers. For the next 20 minutes, all 300+ students of Ignacio High School milled around together in a tight clump, crying, hugging each other, and continuing to speak to the group over the microphone, one by one, again, and again, and again.
Ignacio students
Finally, the MC got the microphone again, and asked everyone to take their candles and form a large circle. The custodian turned the lights down, and hundreds of flickers danced in the dim light. A half-moon of about 20 students remained in the middle, and they continued to take turns speaking into the microphone.

One girl, in tears, spoke of a close friend in elementary school, now estranged, and then turned to her across the room, and in a shaky voice told her, "I know you and me don't get along any more, but I want you to know I think about you all the time, and I really, really miss you! Come over here!" And while 300 students clapped and cheered, the two transcended old grudges and rivalries and hugged in front of their classmates.

And it kept on happening, maybe for another 10 to 20 minutes. One girl came forward, a bit tentative, and took the microphone. "Most of you don't know me very well, but I've been depressed and I've felt suicidal. I tried to commit suicide twice, but what I see here today makes me want to live."

You couldn't have planned what they did. It was spontaneous, honest, wise, powerful, and unforgettable. The general reaction is that it was great, unique, and you couldn't do it again. They don't feel like they could walk into another school and make it happen, and they certainly don't want a bunch of adults coming into the school to make it happen again, but they don't mind talking about it.

Wow! Thanks for sharing your story of Ignacio High School!

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