Everyone wanted to know why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold gunned down 13 people and injured 24 more after the Columbine shooting in 1999. Experts spoke at length about why it happened, but J.C. Pohl of Teen Truth feared the wrong people were being asked. He felt answers resided with ordinary students.
A movie producer by trade, Pohl responded by asking teens to video their lives to gain their perspective. The resulting videos inspired Pohl’s message of giving students a voice about their school community and motivated him to produce more videos focused on bullying, drug use, self-esteem, and parenting. These were the beginnings of Teen Truth.
Pohl founded Teen Truth in 2006 to help students find their voice. His company serves as a resource to schools to create healthy communities by preventing negative reactions to pressures that students experience.
Pohl says, “I carry them [the shooters of Columbine] with me in my heart every time I take the stage and just say, ‘There are kids on this campus who are hurting and not having a positive experience, so what can I do to inspire them to find a positive experience and find their voice?’”
Pohl argues that students face pressures from numerous directions, but students feel compelled to mask their feelings. This concealment results in isolation and pain, forcing some toward negative outlets like drugs, alcohol or self-harm. Teen Truth challenges student leaders to take charge of their school cultures by voicing the pressures they face and creating action plans.
Nearly sixty student leaders from six middle schools and high schools in the Anchorage/Eagle River area gathered at West High School on Friday, October 6 for a leadership summit hosted by Pohl.
Some of the issues students identified during the Summit included depression, anxiety, suicide, bullying, cyberbullying, cultural divides, sexual pressures, lack of plans for the future, issues with self-acceptance, and making comparisons to others. Pohl challenged students to create action plans to address them because “Leaders act!”
“If students are honest and take the mask off,” Pohl said during the Summit, “they find that they are not alone!”
Some of the solutions created by students included hosting diversity assemblies, using social media to compliment others, posting sticky notes on students’ lockers with positive messages, and acknowledging pressures that most teens face.
Lifetouch, a photography company specializing in school photos, sponsored the Teen Truth Leadership Summit on Friday, in addition to school sponsoring assemblies in Palmer and Wasilla. Lifetouch is coming alongside students, teachers, and administrators to enact plans after the Summit.
Sarah Rutkowski, a territory manager for Lifetouch, worked for over a year to bring Pohl to Alaska. She is excited about using Teen Truth as a foundation to help student leaders consider ways to improve their school cultures. After students formulate strategies, staff members from Lifetouch will aid them in turning their ideas into realities.
“So often an inspirational speaker will come in and get people thinking,” Rutkowski said, “but how we keep that excitement going is what I am really excited about.”
Local teens returned to their schools with a new appreciation for the potential of student leadership to impact the cultures of their schools and make lasting change.
“My group talked about how family issues really impacted our school,” Brooklynn Johnson of Romig Middle School said. “We decided we wanted to help prevent [family conflicts] by having a family game night or board game night. We would put on board games or movies that would help them stay together.”
“I think we should be a lot more social,” Johnson continued. “All of us seem to have own little cliques, and I feel like we should be more social and start letting more people in instead of making them invisible.”
Jamin Goeckerholds a graduate degree in International Affairs from Texas A&M University. When not hiking, fishing or working out, he is editing his manuscript for a novel. To reach Jamin, email firstname.lastname@example.org.