In middle school, Salma Abdelrahman heard a lot of hurtful comments.
“Is Osama bin Laden your dad?” one classmate jeered. “Hey! You’re that terrorist,” another told her.
Abdelrahman, who is Muslim, tried to brush off the comments, but the jabs stuck. She developed social anxiety and was afraid to talk to other students.
“It was a lot of small things that sort of piled on,” she said. “As I grew up, I kind of realized the impact that that had on me.”
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It wasn’t until she got to high school that Abdelrahman started to open up about the harassment. She joined a program called Student Voices, which trains teens in Miami-Dade to share their bullying stories with classmates. Abdelrahman and a group of students with similar experiences went from classroom to classroom at Coral Reef Senior High School and told freshmen what it had felt like to be singled out.
“You could tell people were very affected by your story,” said Abdelrahman, who is now in college. “It was just extremely humbling and made you recognize, ‘I'm not the only one who has this story, there are several other people who have a story similar to mine. I'm not alone in this.’”
Bullying and harassment are common experiences in American schools. More than a quarter of all middle and high school students in the U.S. report being bullied at some point and 70 percent of young people say they have witnessed bullying at their school.
Many schools have programs that teach students about values like respect and kindness, or campaigns encouraging them not to pick on their classmates. But counselors and staff involved in the Student Voices program say there is something uniquely powerful about students hearing the message directly from their peers.
“They see everybody goes through some sort of bullying and harassment and it's for the ninth-graders to understand that no matter how old you are, no matter how popular you are, they all go through this,” said Jessica Allen, a guidance counselor who coordinates the Student Voices program at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School in North Miami.
You never know whose life you're changing or saving by sharing your story.
Roberta Shevin, Executive Director of MCCJ
The Student Voices program was started over 20 years ago by MCCJ, an interfaith group that promotes diversity through education and conflict resolution programs. It has since expanded to a dozen high schools in Miami-Dade, including public and private institutions.
Every year, counselors and other school staff at participating schools pick about 20 students to do the two-day MCCJ training for Student Voices. The teens go off campus for the training, which involves trust exercises and storytelling skills. Then they return to school ready to share with their peers.
“It takes a lot of courage,” said Roberta Shevin, the Executive Director of MCCJ. “You never know whose life you're changing or saving by sharing your story.”
For Manny Montesino, participating in Student Voices was a nerve-wracking, but rewarding experience. As a freshman at Coral Reef in South Miami-Dade, Montesino had been afraid to come out as gay to his high school friends. His classmates casually threw around homophobic slurs, calling each other “fag” in the gym locker room. “You’re so gay!” they would tell each other, Montesino recalls. “You’re probably watching me change.”
“‘If this is what they say to each other, who they like and know, and think are straight, what on earth are they going to say to me if they found out that I was actually gay?’” Montesino remembers thinking.
Montesino felt so intimidated, he tried to persuade his mom to let him transfer to another school. When he finally mustered the courage to come out, however, his classmates were surprisingly accepting.
Montesino started sharing his story on the Student Voices panel during his sophomore year, and found that some freshmen classes were more receptive than others. At the panels held toward the end of the year, when the students in each classroom had gotten to know each other, some of the ninth-graders in the audience started to open up and share their own bullying experiences.
“People overwhelmed with emotion and in their own words for the first time they would share their own stories,” said Montesino, now a college freshman.
MCCJ hopes to expand the program to every high school in Miami-Dade, and is in the process of adapting Student Voices for the middle school level as well. Their slogan, printed on the Student Voices T-shirts: “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.”