The Starfish Program, run by consultant Dennis Barger of Grove City, creates a network of students who promote peace among their peers. Barger spent several days last week talking to every elementary class in the district. Fourth grade teachers selected 10 students Wednesday to receive extra training to be mentors to the other students.
Cody Hilliard is one of the 10 students. "I think it's (the program) good because I can be a better person than I already am if I do this," he said of his extra training.
"It's important because people need friends," said Ashley George.
Barger tries to make the students aware of how their peers are feeling.
"Can you tell when a person is sad when they're talking to us? Is it important for us to sense that?," Barger asked, "Sure it is."
Cody said he sees kids who are excluded. At recess he said he sees kids get left out of games because the other kids don't think they're good enough to play on a team.
Barger told the group that if they stick up for other people they may be subjected to getting picked on, too.
"Is there any substitute for kindness and compassion?," he asked. "Are you guys willing to take a little flak?"
The students agreed that to promote the happiness in the schools they need to encourage respect of one another, eliminate name calling, make new friends and be role models. Barger reminded them that being a role model means "progress, not perfection."
Each of the students signed a pledge to uphold certain values and behaviors.
Barger explained to the students that two people can disagree and still be kind and respectful to one another.
Barger, who was an elementary school teacher for 32 years, said he realized there were problems with interaction between students and the old methods weren't working to improve things so he started the Starfish Program.
"I spent a lot of time crying when I got started," he said of his trips to schools across western Pennsylvania. "It was hard to get in the car and leave when I knew kids needed so many other things besides academics."
Midge Johnson, elementary guidance counselor, said there is a problem with bullying in schools but it's not the problem people think.
"It's subtle," Mrs. Johnson said. "It's not the old fashioned, 'I'm going to steal your lunch money," thing." She added that a subtle way kids pick on each other is excluding one another from activities.
"Violent behavior is easy to deal with. Bullying went on when I was in school but we always quit. Now there's no quitting until the end," Barger said. Unfortunately the end now means someone doing harm to themselves or others, he said.
Barger's idea is "get to the heart before they get to guns ... I give it everything I have."
Mrs. Johnson said she heard about Barger's program through a parent, but when she heard him speak at a conference she knew the students at Wilmington could benefit from the program.
Fifty staff and elementary teachers also went through training with Barger to help the students launch the program. Mrs. Johnson said they are hoping to put up bulletin boards and display cases and play songs that promote tolerance and understanding.
She said she hopes to see the program expand to the middle and high school students as well.