By Paul Tennant
---- — NORTH ANDOVER — Bullying is likely to go the way of the fountain pen at Kittredge School – if it has not already done so.
Every four weeks, students, teachers and other staffers stage a RAISE rally. RAISE is an acronym that stands for respect, achievement, inclusion, service and empathy. All of the North Andover public schools are committed to those values.
Friday afternoon’s rally featured several North Andover High School students who have disabilities. They talked about what it’s like to live with those challenges and the bullying and namecalling they have endured.
Nate Richards, who founded the Disability Awareness Program as a Bar Mitzvah community service project when he was a seventh-grader, has familial spastic paraparesis, a condition that impedes his walking.
Richards, a high-energy guy who actually walks faster than most people, told the Kittredge students how other children would call him a cripple and tease him for “walking funny” when he was their age. He got so sick of it that he started an anti-bullying program.
Aislinn McAvoy, like Richards a North Andover High School senior, has a visual challenge. She explained that she was born with cataracts on her eyes.
The cataracts were removed when she was very young, but she still must wear thick eyeglasses. McAvoy said it was painful to have other students make fun of her and call her “four eyes.”
Jarelin Escobar, a Fitchburg High School junior, has spinal bifida and uses a wheelchair.
“It’s like sitting in class all day,” she said when one of the elementary students asked what it’s like to spend so much time in a wheelchair. Escobar said she has not been taunted as blatantly as her friends, Richards and McAvoy, but she’s faced a different sort of nastiness.
“It’s how they look at me,” she said.
Jordan Raffalli, an NAHS senior who deals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asked the Kittredge students if they’ve ever experienced a high-energy feeling after eating too much candy on Halloween.
“I feel like that all the time,” he said. The condition makes focusing on school work difficult, he noted.
Dan Cosmes, yet another North Andover High senior, learned American Sign Language by the time he was 3. Why? Because his mother is deaf.
Cosmes said he has a 13-year-old brother who has autism. His brother is a computer whiz – but he’s just now learning how to talk, he said.
Samantha Girroir talked about the Best Buddies program, in which students become friends with young people who have developmental challenges. Girroir is also an NAHS senior.
Richards urged the children to join in the national effort to stamp out the use of the word “retard.”
Richards and the other high-schoolers led the Kittredge students through several exercises that helped them experience what it’s like to live with a disability.
Fourth-graders Michael Kamil and Carley Pearlson got a taste of visual impairment by putting on sunglasses, mounting a scooter board and trying to negotiate their way through a small obstacle course in the school gym.
Dan MacMillan, a fifth-grader, and Carly Bilecki, a fourth-grader, experienced a hint of attention deficit disorder by attempting to jump rope and read a book at the same time. To make the task more difficult and distracting, their peers sang as loudly as they could.
Fourth-graders Duncan Preston and Elizabeth Chai got into wheelchairs and tried to shoot a basketball through a hoop.
Graham Petersen, a fourth-grader, asked Richards if the people who bullied him during his younger years have continued to bother him.
Richards said the bullying came to a halt after he and other students with disabilities spoke to 60 of their seventh-grade peers in the North Andover Middle School gym. A few of the reformed bullies actually apologized to him, he said.
“They don’t bully me,” Richards said. “I don’t hold a grudge against them.”
Kathy Laughlin, a fourth-grade teacher at Kittredge, said Richards, Cosmes, Girroir, Raffalli, McAvoy, Escobar and the other members of the Disability Awareness Program should take their message to other schools.
The Friday afternoon RAISE rally was not all serious stuff. With Principal Richard Cushing strumming his guitar and a few other students playing their instruments, the RAISEins, a Kittredge singing group, offered lively renditions of “I Won’t Back Down” and “Jingle Bell Rock.”
“Our students have an understanding of what bullying is and what not to do,” Cushing said.