Though Rochelle Whellams had just met the teenagers at Riverside High School, she had them riveted.

“How many of you have had a time where someone judged you and it hurt?” she asked the Boardman students, to an almost unanimous affirmative response.

Whellams is a speaker from “Breaking Down the Walls,” a program that aims to help students relate to one another and better deal with issues that cause them trouble in school.

The session, which was founded in 1984 as part of the “Learning for Living” program, attempts to engage students in several ways: get them comfortable with each other through games and basic conversations, break them into smaller groups to get to know each other, and have them discuss and think about their own experiences.

“The idea is that kids will start to recognize other people within our school that they don’t normally associate with,” said Riverside principal David Norton. “And second, to recognize that we all have baggage. Just because I may be coming to school upset, there may be a reason for that.”

Norton said his staff decided to host the event because they’re trying to help students who have adverse child experiences, as well as learn more about how those events affect students’ success throughout school and later in life.

“Our goal is to help kids figure out how they deal with these things, and be able to succeed in school and in life,” Norton said.

As students broke into small groups, they were led by peers who had attended a training the previous day.

Whellams, who has been directing “Breaking Down the Walls” events for about 12 years, said it is designed to create a positive school culture and get students to communicate with each other.

“How do we get students to start treating each other (well), put the cell phones away and check the judgment at the door?” she asked.

She said the presence of cell phones and social media has contributed to a decline in the way students interact.

“Students isolate. They think that texting is communicating. It’s not. This is to learn, how do we look people in the eyes?”

Though some students were hesitant, most were engaged with the process after the first few activities.

“Yesterday, in training, we were supposed to share something personal,” said senior Ruby Barrera, one of the student leaders. “Some of us were really crying. It got real, but it opened us up to each other.”

Whellams said she often hears feedback from schools where she does trainings.

“Some kids are going to go back to their old habits — you can’t unlearn behavior,” she said. But she said many teachers and administrators have said they see the divide between students soften following the event.

“In Seattle, I had a kid stand up and apologize to another kid that he had destroyed online,” she said. “For him to stand up in front of the school and say that, that was huge.”


Contact Jayati Ramakrishnan at 541-564-4534 or

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