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Clique-Busters

A martinez couple helps Teenagers Stand up and change their world


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When Challenge Day comes to a school, classes are canceled, windows are blocked for privacy, boxes of tissues are scattered throughout the room, and every student gets a turn at the microphone. It’s a daylong experience that brings kids, parents, and school officials together to discuss the stresses of adolescent life. And it’s the crusade of Martinez educators Yvonne St. John–Dutra and her husband, Rich Dutra–St. John. Since 1987 the couple has visited hundreds of schools across the country, bringing issues like bullying, racism, loneliness, separation, and isolation into the light. Diablo talked to Yvonne about the program and what she has learned by listening to teens.

1 What happens at Challenge Day?
We talk about things that normally don’t get talked about but that go on every day. The students see that their little fights and battles are no different from other fights and battles all over the world. Then they rise up as leaders. They grab the microphone and say, “Let’s do something!”

2 What surprises parents who participate in a Challenge Day?
Often parents are blown away by the amount of isolation, teasing, and pressure that the kids endure, as well as the amount of sexuality [and the availability of drugs.

3 What are the long-range effects of Challenge Day?
Many schools report that a year later, [the number of] suspensions has been reduced, violence has gone down, and tobacco and alcohol use have gone down. We weren’t even directly addressing [substance use].

4 What are some of the problems you’ve run into at East Bay schools?
The hurting, the humiliation, the cliques are there in all schools. You often see verbal violence, rumors, and teasing, which often leave kids feeling lonely and separate.

5 Does trouble cross economic status?
You bet. In fact, in [wealthier] schools, we often find there’s more loneliness. At one point in the program, we ask students to walk across the room if they feel alone when they’re at school. And in upper-middle–class communities, more kids cross the room.

6 What should parents be most concerned about?
Naturally, the teen years are when young people start to find themselves and separate from their parents. But pay attention if they become so separate that they’re isolating themselves. Know what’s going on in your kid’s life. A lot of parents are so afraid to intrude that they don’t even know if their kids are happy or sad.

7 Why does bullying exist in schools?
[For most of the kids doing the teasing, it’s just a habit—something they’ve learned since elementary school. It’s been forever thought of as, “That’s just the way it is, and that’s how it’s going to be.” We tell the [kids] it doesn’t have to be that way, that they can have whatever they want at their school.

8 After two kids at Clayton Valley High in Concord—one current and one former student—committed suicide last year, the school called you in. What happened?
We don’t know exactly what happened with those young people. However, we do know that a lot of students are dealing with separation, stereotypes, pressure, teasing—all this stuff [is part of why hundreds of students in every school are depressed and sometimes considering suicide. If you come to school and you’re being teased and ridiculed, then it’s going to add to whatever’s already there.

9 At Challenge Day, teens start off with their arms crossed, but by the end they’re crying and hugging. How do you get through to them?
People say we work miracles, but the truth is [that] young people are ready and wanting to talk and change things. If anyone were to go to any school and say, “Talk about what it’s like to be you,” young people would do it in a minute.

10 What can parents do to “get” their teenager?
Just listen and don’t try to fix it. If you spend enough time and listen long enough, even the kids who normally don’t talk a lot will start talking, given enough space and time. And make sure you have time to be around. If they’re involved in anything, go to their events, be part of their lives. Get to know your kids’ friends, and their parents. And no matter what, let your teens know you love them just because.

Challenge Day hosts more than 650 programs a year in 34 states and Canada. For information visit www.challengeday.org .

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