Michelle Murphy likes to imagine a world in which Colorado’s high school cheerleaders and quarterbacks are the cure to bullying and hazing — not the cause.
To make that dream a reality, Murphy has played a principal role in the launch of a leadership campaign that asks the most active high school students to promote an inclusive culture at their school, deter harassment on and off the field, and foster greater participation in a range of high school activities.
“The current (anti-bullying) programs aren’t working,” said Murphy, who serves as counsel for the Colorado Association of School Boards. “But what is working is teaching students how to make friends, how to be empathetic, letting the natural leaders do the work.”
Organizers and observers believe the campaign, We are CHSAA — developed by and named for the Colorado High School Activities Association — is the first of its kind in the nation because it makes a direct appeal to students and is a statewide initiative.
The idea, Murphy said, is for coaches and administrators to positively reinforce the tenants of the camaraderie the students experience on the field or stage and ask them how those principals can work in the hallways of their respective schools, give students leadership tools and then let the them be the example.
“It will be the kids who do the program,” said Bert Borgmann, CHSAA’s assistant commissioner.
The first project for the We Are CHSAA Positive Leadership Campaign brings together CHSAA, the You Can Play Project and an assortment of Colorado’s professional athletes to promote a program endorsing inclusion and diversity in sports and extracurricular activities, more specifically for lesbian, gays, bisexual and transgender students.
The “You Can Play, Colorado” project asks high school students, teams and schools to enter a statewide video contest that documents their commitment to the idea that great teammates are judged by passion and attitude, not race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or other potentially discriminatory traits.
“These programs will use the natural leaders in our schools to create a more positive culture,” Borgmann said. “When you want to solve problems, you want to start from the positive side.”
The anticipated byproduct of the campaign is a more engaged, connected and inclusive student body that yields better grades and graduation results.
“Every kid in high school needs a reason to belong,” Borgmann said. “But there are students who feel they aren’t a part of the school, they are bullied, hazed or ignored, and we want to reverse that trend.”
Both Murphy and Borgmann point to research that shows students who are involved and feel a sense of belonging do better throughout high school.
“The research is established: a safe and accepted culture allows students the ability to learn,” Murphy said.
Director of Education Services for the National Federation of State High School Associations Elliot Hopkins agrees.
“The data has been consistent for the last 30 years. Students who participate graduate on time, miss fewer days and have better self-esteem,” Elliot said in a telephone interview. “And we’re not just talking about sports. The kid in drama club who is painting the back drop will be more likely to graduate with better grades, too.”
The Federation regularly aggregates data on the effect of participation in high school activities in a report “The Case for High School Activities.”
Findings include students who spend no time in extracurricular activities are 49 percent more likely to use drugs and 37 percent more likely to become teen parents. Additionally, girls who participate have a dramatic increase in overall health and self esteem. And students who participate in the arts programs at least nine hours a week are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievements.
Since the inception of the We are CHSAA campaign, the statewide association has been working with a handful of athletic directors and student leaders across the state to enroll participation. This week the organization also sent information to more than 300 additional schools and will be touting their efforts at sports activities through the year.
Students at East High School in Denver and at Thompson Valley High School have already produced videos to showcase both the the broader We are CHSAA campaign and the narrower focused “You Can Play, Colorado” project.
Both CHSAA and the You Can Play project received individual grants from the Gill Foundation’s Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado Program. The organizations received an additional grant for the “You Can Play, Colorado” project.
Hopkins called the We Are CHSAA campaign innovative.
“It could be a great model for the rest of our members,” he said.
But, he cautioned, for the program to work in earnest, the adults need to get out of the way.
“There is no better group to make the change then these groups of kids,” he said.