BRATTLEBORO -- Last year Amelia Graff, now 12, attended the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Leadership Retreat for the first time.
The Leadership Retreat brings students from throughout WSESU together for three days before school starts to talk about ways to confront bullying and harassment and to help develop leaders who will take those lessons back when school starts.
After Amelia left the 2012 retreat she returned to Academy School and started a leadership program there that was active throughout the year.
Amelia, who is entering Brattleboro Area Middle School this year, started the leadership council at Academy with some of the other students who attended last year.
"We did all sorts of stuff," she said. "We worked with Project Feed the Thousands, we did role playing. A few of us came back this year to learn more about leadership."
This is the fifth year WSESU has held the retreat and officials say the program has proven to be a successful way of bringing students together to talk about topics like diversity, bullying and discrimination.
The plan, WSESU Superintendent Ron Stahley says, is to empower students and train them to be able to stand up to bullies, and also to help them come up with ways to support the victims.
"We want the kids to be able to make good choices and resist negative peer pressure," Stahley said. "Creating a safe school climate is just as important as the academic pressures the kids face."
When WSESU held the first leadership retreat it was held for one day and about 50 students attended.
A few years ago it was extended to three days and this year 83 students in grades six, seven and eight attended the program which is held on the School for International Training campus.
Counselors, teachers and administrators from throughout the supervisory union help recruit the attendees, which Stahley said is a mixture of students who have proven to be leaders, along with some who have been involved with bullying and harassment incidents.
"Social competency is something we work on throughout the year in school," he said. "By bringing together leaders, and other kids who need extra help, we feel like we can get a jump on it and help create a safe school climate from the beginning of the school year."
The retreat was held on Aug. 4, 5 and 6, and included serious discussions on areas of diversity, harassment, bullying and violence.
In the afternoons the groups built relationships through games and playing.
Martin Sipowicz, 13, who is going into the 8th grade at BAMS, said he was asked to attend, and decided to give up a few precious days of summer to develop his leadership skills.
"I want to be on leadership council, and this helps you become a better leader," he said. "I feel like as a kid, you don't get much power in school and this is a good way to get a little bit of power."
Martin said he was surprised to learn that a recent survey done at BAMS found that 68 percent of those who were asked said they have witnessed students being unkind to one another.
"I think if we have more leaders we can improve that," he said. "We should be able to construct a better statistic than that."
Jack Price, 12, also attended last year as an Academy School student, and he returned to the Leadership Retreat this year as he gets ready to enter BAMS.
He said the lessons and discussions that take place at the retreat have helped him when he witnesses problems at school.
"Coming here gives us knowledge and the mentality to be a leader," he said. "If you have that mentality you can learn what you need to do, and then take physical action to stop bullying."
Diana Wahle is the WSESU Development Asset Coordinator and she said the district has seen real change since holding the three day retreat before the school year starts.
Wahle stressed that social competency and diversity training go on all year in the WSESU schools but training the leaders during the summer helps teachers and administrators create a standard that is supported by the students.
"Every student who is here has an option of joining a leadership counsel when they are back in school and those counsels are focused on developing a positive social climate," Wahle said. "This training is like a catalyst for those counsels to work effectively throughout the school year."
Wahle said it is important to bring in proven leaders along with students who might benefit from sensitivity training or get a feeling for what it means to be bullied.
"We want kids who are leaders but we also want to bring in kids who never imagined themselves as being in a leadership role, as well as those who might have engaged in negative behavior" Wahle said. "We create a community at the retreat and that carries over into the school year."
For Kathryn Worell, 12, the retreat gave her a chance to explore ways to confront bullying when she sees it.
She said the discussions and activities made her think about the effects of bullying and gave her tools to make a difference the next time she sees it.
"I came here because I wanted to learn how to be an active bystander, to help kids that needed to be helped," she said. "Bullying is a problem and now I feel like I can improve things and not just stand there wishing I could do something."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.