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Kool to be Kind advocates ask school officials to hold off ax

Photo by Anne Amato

Jack Gross, an 8-year-old Long Lots Elementary School student, was among those urging the Board of Education on Monday not to eliminate the Kool to be Kind program.

Kevin Watt began attending Westport's public schools in the second grade when his family moved to town.

He said that because he was the new kid he was bullied -- actually, brutalized -- by one classmate, a boy who hit him every day and pushed him into the school bus. He shared those painful memories Monday during the Board of Education meeting to underscore his belief that school support be maintained for the Kool to be Kind program, which is on the chopping block in next year's budget.

Kool to be Kind, also known as K2BK, is an empathy-based, anti-bullying program where Staples High School students serve as mentors for third-graders, and teach them not only about kindness but also effective ways to deal with bullies. Watt, a junior at Staples, is one of those mentors.

Several other high school students told the school board about their similar encounters, all urging Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon to reconsider cutting what they consider a valuable program.

"This is my first year with K2BK," said Ian Goodman, a Staples junior. He said that with all the extra-curricular activities that he belongs participates in, none are more important. "Kids learn more from kids their own age. Young kids want to be like the older ones."

One parent said the program, started four years ago, teaches third-graders "tolerance, acceptance and kindness," and she was confused by the decision to cut the program.

Lee Katz, a mother who volunteers with Kool to be Kind, said that there is no program that has had a more positive impact on the emotional education of younger students.

Landon thanked those who spoke on the issue, saying, "I appreciate your passion," and added that he recognizes the significant impact that having high school students work with younger students can be. He mentioned how high schoolers also are role models for younger children in the gifted, DARE and robotics programs.

But, Landon added, Kool to be Kind is not a program "approved or endorsed by the Board of Education." He noted the school system's Responsible Classroom program, which is sanctioned by the board, also deals with bullying. It is designed for children in kindergarten and grades one to five and not just the third grade like Kool to be Kind.

"We will find a solution," he said.

Board member Michael Gordon said he was moved by what supporters said Monday night. He said they have to be "more concrete about what's ahead" and offered two suggestions. "Let's discuss this at a future board meeting," he said. He said it's also worth some members of the administration, families involved in the program, and "anyone with a stake in this program" to get together "to come up with some solutions."

Board member Paul Block said he appreciated the speakers "standing up for what they believe in."

"We're listening," he said.

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