HUTTO, Texas (KXAN) — A state Senate committee recently recommended in a new report that school districts should promote a “healthy school culture” and get the community more involved as some of the ways to improve safety and security.
A police officer at the Hutto Independent School District launched an initiative ahead of the new school year to do just that.
Officer Michelle O’Neil, who joined the Hutto ISD Police Department last year, set out an “encouragement box” at every school throughout the district this summer. She then asked people in the community to write positive notes for the students.
“I thought maybe it’s a good idea to bring them up instead of the students always bringing each other down,” Officer O’Neil said.
Some of the notes she’s collected have just one word, like “smile” or “laugh.” Others include inspirational quotes, like “Smile when you are sad. It scares your problems away.”
She hopes the thousands of little notes that she’s now gotten will have a big impact on how the students feel about themselves this school year. “I think just a small gesture goes a long way,” Officer O’Neil said. “It could stick with them, and it could change a student’s day.”
This summer the district also started Project Kindness. Parents, like Gloriana Price, volunteered to place kind messages throughout their children’s schools in English and Spanish.
“School’s not easy sometimes,” Price, a mother of three Hutto ISD students, said. “Sometimes there’s bullies, and sometimes there’s just not-so-nice people. You just need to remind yourself that you’re capable of doing good things while you’re in school.”
Many of the messages are on bathroom stall doors as well as mirrors. The restroom might seem like an unlikely place to put these, but Connie Gooding, the school board president, said that’s where students often seek refuge.
“What we’re trying to do is just when they walk in and maybe don’t feel their best,” Gooding said, “we give them something to smile about, something to think about.”
The Hutto ISD superintendent, Celina Estrada Thomas, said she sees both these projects as an extension of the district’s overall efforts to improve safety and security, which included hiring two new crisis counselors to work at the district.
“The best thing that we can do to make our kids feel safe is to make them feel safe, first and foremost, psychologically and physically in their own schools,” Estrada Thomas said. “I think the positive message is just about that establishing that message from the get-go so that no child is a stranger, and no child feels like they’re not worthy.”
Carla Salazar, a counselor at Veterans’ Hill Elementary, expects these efforts to have a positive “ripple effect” throughout the schools. “I think kids will see that and want to do something good for someone else,” Salazar said. “They really are excited to bless each other and be good to one another, so I’m excited to see how they’re going to take that and run with it.”
Officer O’Neil plans to take all the encouraging notes and display them throughout the schools. Students will see them when they walk into the first day of school on Aug. 21, and they can even keep whichever ones they like. “It would be great to have more (notes) because we have more than 2,000 students in the district,” O’Neil said. “If we could have at least one for every student posted, that would be great.”
Since the first day of school is quickly approaching, anyone who’d like to leave an encouraging note for students should do so this week. Messages can be dropped off at any Hutto ISD campus before Tuesday.