Students work to combat bullying at Park City High | ParkRecord.com

Students work to combat bullying at Park City High

An offensive Instagram post sparks change at the school

From left: Park City High School Principal Bob OĆ­Connor stands with students Eli Levine, Angel Lopez and Faith Staley. They each played a role in the response to a racist Instagram incident earlier this month.

Bullying and harassment take place at schools everywhere. They go under the radar most of the time, but some students see them and will do whatever it takes to stop the behavior in its tracks. That is what happened to Faith Staley, a senior at Park City High School, three weeks ago.

She said she came across an offensive image on one of her peer's finstagram (fake Instagram) accounts and immediately messaged him to remove it. The other Park City High student refused, saying that the image, which was a screenshot of another student and involved derogatory racial slurs, was a joke.

Staley's actions eventually led to the removal of the post and sparked a divisive conversation at the school between those who believed the image to be over the line and those who said the student was exercising his right of free speech, said Eli Levine, a senior at the school. Students, like Staley, are being taught to step up to fight for social issues and are taking action.

"Literally, in classes we would talk about this, and there would be full-on debates about what you believe–freedom of speech versus protecting people's emotions," he said. "It was very intense."

In the end, the students involved were disciplined and required to write essays about the importance of tolerance, said Bob O'Connor, principal of the school.

He was upset about the situation but also proud of the students who stood up for what they believed was just. He said it is part of a shift the school is trying to make to combat harassment and empower students.

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While groups such as Natural Helpers and the Gay Straight Alliance have been around for decades, several clubs that target social issues and involve peer-to-peer education have sprung up in recent years, said Samantha Walsh, a counselor at the high school and co-advisor for the suicide prevention club the HOPE Squad. Others include Planned Parenthood's Teen Council, which specializes in peer-to-peer education; End Violence Now and iMPACt (Mental and Physical Advocacy Coalition).

"There's a lot of power placed in the hands of students," Levine said. "And people really listen to what students have to say."

After the incident, he and his friends went to the school's assistant principals requesting that something be done to call people to action, and a letter was sent out the same day to parents. A few days later, a video was posted on the school's social media channels condemning harassment of any kind.

Part of the student power comes from the "unprecedented amount of peer-to-peer education at the school," Levine said. Staley, president of the school's Gay Straight Alliance, and Levine, president of iMPACt, have been taught in their respective clubs to stand up for others. They took the opportunity to do so after the racist post, despite a lot of push-back from fellow students. Levine walked into a classroom one day to see a group of students screaming at Staley for her opinion that the post she saw was wrong and had to be removed

For her, there was no question about what to do. She said it comes down to education about your own privilege.

"It's best if you learn about your privilege and why you are able to laugh at something and why other people are not," she said. "It will increase your tolerance."

The discussion is not just happening in Park City, either, she said. Around the same time as the Park City racist Instagram post, for example, a video surfaced of students at Weber High School shouting racial slurs.

O'Connor said there had been no other similar situations brought to the attention of the school in several years. While it was an unfortunate event, he said, the response from the students could not have been better.

"This was a step backward, but to see the students respond the way they have, we're going to go forward quickly," he said.

Students are still mending wounds, though. Angel Lopez, president of the Latinos in Action club at the school, said more students are now reaching out, but at first, the Latino community felt targeted.

"When you go to a school like Park City and you are the clear minority, you feel like you are the target," he said. "You feel like the things being said are about you. And when you hear people defend it and justify it, it's kind of like a slap to the face."

The school is still finding ways to strive toward inclusivity and away from bullying, but Levine said it is often events like these that push people toward building a better community.

"It's really saddening that something like this has to happen to spark a change, but it's really effective in terms of getting things done," he said. "When something really bad happens, it sparks a lot of good.”