Palo Alto Middle School eighth-grader James Thombs performs his rap song, “Increase the Peace,” during a “No Place for Hate” assembly Thursday at the Killeen school.

By Chris McGuinness
Killeen Daily Herald

Palo Alto Middle School students, wearing their school colors, packed the bleachers in their gym, waved signs, sang the school song and cheered at the top of their lungs.

But it wasn’t an ordinary pep rally.

Instead of celebrating school spirit or getting energized for an upcoming sporting event, students and staffers gathered to show solidarity against bullying, prejudice and intolerance.

“There is no place for hate here,” said Matt Widacki, the school’s principal. “It brings out the worst in all of us … and it’s our job to erase bullying at this school.”

The rally was part of the school’s goal to become a “hate-free” campus. The school is participating in the “No Place for Hate” initiative, a program created by the Anti-Defamation League to promote awareness and education to students about how to combat bullying, prejudice and intolerance.

“(The initiative) challenges students to stand together against bullying and bigotry at their school,” said Priscilla Flores, the school’s counselor. “It helps to show them that they shouldn’t be afraid to speak out.”

Thursday’s assembly included a number of performances by students, including the cheer and dance squads, some who read anti-bullying poems and even a few students who chose to display their distaste for bullying with rap songs.

While Widacki and a few other school staffers spoke at the rally, the event’s participants were mostly students.

“It’s really up to the students to own it,” said Flores. “You can have a slogan and talk to them all day, but when they see their peers speaking out, it’s very powerful.”

Hilary Rodriguez, a seventh-grade student, agreed with Flores. “Sometimes we can just understand one another better because we know what it’s like to be students, and we know what it’s like to get bullied,” she said. “It makes you feel better when you hear it from other kids, and you don’t feel like you’re alone.”

While the rally showcased the students’ anti-bullying commitment, Josephine Maxey, a physical education instructor and coach, reminded the youngsters that the school’s staff was there to help them, too.

“We are like a family here at Palo Alto, and we need to step up and protect our family,” said Maxey. “The teachers and staff are here to listen when you feel like you have no place to go.”

Flores said the initiative will continue today with students signing pledges to help keep their school free of bullying and intolerance, and other activities will be scheduled throughout the year to increase awareness on the issue.