Students from across southern Alberta went to two seminars, one at the Kennedy Advocacy Centre in December and then another brain-storming session at Father McNally high school in Calgary on Feb. 6.
It’s all about youth helping youth, Kennedy said.
“What we want to do is create youth champions within the school to really understand the issues of child abuse and how they are linked to mental health,” he said. “We want to educate kids and create some champions in their own schools to around these issues… What are they going to do to create the conversations around mental health, early childhood trauma, which is child abuse.”
Kennedy, an MD of Foothills resident who played eight years in the NHL, made headlines when he disclosed in 1997 he was a victim of sexual abuse by his former Junior coach Graham James in the mid 1980s. He later would speak to the United States Senate about child abuse. He was awarded the Order of Canada last year.
He said schools need to develop an environment in which the young people have the knowledge and the skills to help their peers.
“How do we create a confidence among these people that if a friend is hurting or a friend has disclosed something that they have the proper tools to deal with it?” he said. “A lot of the time peers will disclose to peers before they will disclose to a teacher or a guidance counsellor.”
Kennedy sees the Grade 10 students as pioneers of sorts at their schools.
“We are just starting and we will have them for two more years,” he said. “We can create those champions who can work along with the teachers, the guidance counsellors to create a reality in schools… How do we understand and how do we take action?”
At Foothills Comp, the champions are giving the teachers some added work for a future professional development day.
The students have made an action plan for teachers to discuss at a professional development day how to recognize warning signs and how to help students.
“We hope to educate the teachers on how to respond to people who are suffering from abuse and are under difficult circumstances,” said Foothills Comp student champion Lauren Oldham. “Obviously, we don’t have the training to do that. But if we can advocate for the student body that it would be very important for the teachers to know how to deal with people who have been in difficult situations.”
Oldham said the Kennedy Advocacy Centre is much needed, but hopefully students and children can be helped before getting to the centre.
“You can do a lot at the centre but not very many people are aware of it or what really child abuse is,” Oldham said.
(But once they get to the centre) it’s much too late. The goal is to prevent it (abuse) or stop it from going further.”
At HTA the student champions’ action plan is looking long-term.
“We are creating an action with the school, communication and awareness,” Alexandra Fisher said. “Because we are not in Grade 12, we will be able to apply this action plan in our years of high school – so we can make a change within our schools.”
The champions are developing a “student map”.
“We want to show all the contacts and all the people students can contact if they are dealing with a problem that they don’t feel comfortable talking to just anyone with,” Fisher said. The map would include student counsellors, social workers, help-lines and contacts at the Sheldon Kennedy Centre.
“We are also going to have a bulletin board saying that we are there for you – that if you want to talk, you have a voice,” she said.
Although the seminars included adults with the police, school boards and other authoritative-sounding groups, it was the Grade 10 students who took control.
“The best part was it wasn’t adults up there telling us this is what we are going to do,” Kennedy said. “It was our youth telling us what we are going to do and what they are going to do in our schools… I was super-proud of how our schools (Foothills and HTA) presented.”
The other Okotoks student champions include Jonathan Gerber at HTA and Foothills’ Bailey Lang and Scott Chizen.