Students and teachers have undertaken a campaign of kindness and compassion this month. (Photo by Bria Light/Telluride Daily Planet)

October brings to mind the crunch of yellow leaves, dropping temperatures, spooky costumes and pumpkin spice everything. For the students and teachers of the Telluride School District it also brings to mind kindness and compassion. Though kindness is cool all year round, October is National Bullying Awareness Month, a time when many schools focus on eradicating the noxious weeds of exclusion, meanness and intolerance by sowing the seeds of inclusion and compassion.

“Throughout the month of October we’ve been having a theme each week that goes along with bullying prevention,” explained Sara Baffoe, Telluride Middle School counselor and recipient of the 2020 Superintendent Award.

Each week, she explained, students discuss ideas like digital citizenship, inclusion and diversity, and unity, with student-led presentations and school-wide activities to bring the concepts to life. To promote the idea of unity, for example, on designated days students wore orange in a show of solidarity for bullying prevention. The final week of the month, students will focus on the theme of sustainability for bullying prevention.

“We want our culture of kindness and inclusion to continue for the entire school year,” said Baffoe.

While bullying can manifest in a variety of ways, it tends to vary from age group to age group, noted Telluride High School counselor Alexander Jones, who is also a clinical mental health intern. For high schoolers, it is often most notable as an inclusion-exclusion dynamic, and problematic social media interactions become more prevalent. For younger students, it often presents in more visible forms such as name-calling.

During the COVID-19 era, students are feeling heightened levels of disconnection, stress and anxiety, according to the counselors’ observations, and building the tools and habits for connecting with other kids around them has become even more important this year.

“The students feel the sense of isolation and lack of social connection and it’s difficult for them to overcome it,” observed Jones. “One of the messages I’m trying to get across is the importance of viewing everyone you meet as a potential friend, and just starting from that perspective. Sometimes students can be closed off initially, or self-conscious, but if they can just reach out from the start to anybody and everybody they meet, it makes it so much easier for the other person to reciprocate back.”

Baffoe noted that she’ll start the day with students asking them to show her how they are feeling on a scale from one to 10, with one representing “feeling calm and collected” and 10 being “nervous, on edge.” Many students are starting the day holding up sevens, eights and nines, she said.

“The community can empathize with the struggle that students face in this world of being cut off from a lot of their friends and a lot of their teachers and their groups,” said Jones. “It’s really hard to just maintain levels of happiness or connectedness.”

One way parents, caretakers and community members can offer support, Baffoe said, is to prioritize having meaningful conversations, even short ones, about inclusion and kindness.

“You can ask, ‘How did you show kindness today, or this week? How did you show inclusion? What difficult situation did you handle in a way that you’re proud of?’” Baffoe said. “Human connection, especially within the family unit, is huge right now.”

Students themselves have also been at the forefront of promoting a culture of kindness and compassion at school, forming a peer alliance club and a social media presence to get the word out to their fellow students that they can reach out to them for support. This month the older students have given presentations to the younger students, letting them know ways in which they can participate in the effort to end bullying.

“Bullying happens when people are insecure about themselves, so they take it out on a different person, or they just want to feel like they have power,” said Sarah Ireland, a junior and founding member of TSD Peer Alliance. “We can start by spreading awareness about it and present solutions that can actually be used. The younger the students we talk to about it, the more we can hopefully prevent it from happening in the future.”

Merci Craft, also a junior and founding member of Peer Alliance, noted that supporting someone can be as simple as noticing and acting when someone looks in need of a listening ear.

“If you see someone sitting alone and they are not having a good day, recognize that and go talk to them; make an effort,” she said.

Both students said that they’d experienced negative social interactions with other students at some point, making them feel like an outcast, isolated and not understood by their peers.

“It made me feel like I wasn’t meant to be here,” recalled Craft.

Building a community where bullying is banished and kindness is the norm starts small and is something everyone can partake in.

“Make it a goal to give someone a compliment each day, or say something nice,” suggested Ireland. “It doesn’t always have to be huge. The little things are what matters.”