A group of Hastings Middle School eighth-graders last week culminated a yearlong initiative to enhance respect and kindness at their school with an afternoon of team-building field games.

A group of Hastings Middle School eighth-graders last week culminated a yearlong initiative to enhance respect and kindness at their school with an afternoon of team-building field games.

As Catherine Shapiro and Carrie Stieg filled water buckets Friday afternoon, Aug. 19, and looked across the Hastings campus, they beamed with excitement and pride.

Shapiro, a Hastings school counselor, and Stieg, a sixth- and seventh-grade teacher, said they could not have been more impressed with a 25-student group and how they brought together a series of field day-type events for the inaugural HIP (Hastings IN-Reach Program) Day.

"They did it all," Stieg said of the students. "They have so many great ideas and are so passionate about this that we just have to stay out of their way."

Those students -- eighth-graders this year -- said they organized a group called BEARS (Bringing Empathy, Acceptance and Respect Schoolwide) because as seventh-graders, they saw too much teasing and bullying and too little kindness and respect at their school.

The BEARS mission, as exemplified at HIP Day, is to develop programs and activities to promote a culture of relationship-building, teamwork, better communication and collaboration.

HIP Day wasn't a proposal to get out of afternoon classes in the name of fun or even physical fitness. Rather, it was a thoroughly planned practice in positivity.

Students made HIP Day happen through weekly brainstorming sessions during lunch last year, formal presentations to school staff and administrators and two "lock-in" nights during summer break where they stayed overnight at Hastings and honed plans for the event.

Then, on Friday, the entire building, including teachers, took part in games that forced them to communicate and work together on activities such as races to fill leaky buckets or to roll a tennis ball around sheets without having it fall through holes in the fabric.

"We want the kids at Hastings to learn how to work together," BEARS member Camille Housh said. "Sometimes we don't always talk to each other and work together."

Fellow BEARS member Addison Bradley added that throughout the school year, the group hopes to encourage communication because it breaks down barriers, leads to better understanding of one another and bolsters respectful behavior.

"If people know each other, it's less likely they'll stereotype each other ... and there's less bullying," Bradley said. "I think there's been an improvement in how people treat each other since we started, and there's definitely been a decrease in bullying.

"Our hope for the BEARS group is it'll be like a ripple effect. If they stop bullying each other, maybe we can talk to others about it and it can spread."

Housh said BEARS was established because a group of classmates last year "felt the seventh grade needed help with bonding and working together."

Stieg and Shapiro, who are volunteer advisers to the group, said the students brought the issue to light with teachers and staff members and then conducted hours of study on how to address it.

"They did pages upon pages of research and found the No. 1 way to prevent bullying was for students to get to know each other," Stieg said. "They also asked teachers to be more present in hallways between classes and little things like not ignoring inappropriate comments."

The advisers and Hastings Principal Robb Gonda said they've noticed positive changes in attitudes through the BEARS' work last year, and just three days into the new school year, they were confident the eighth-graders' initiatives and example would yield greater returns.

"Building relationships and teamwork are at the core of middle school," Gonda said. "It's great to see the kids taking leadership and building a positive culture in our building."

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