PIERCETON — For nearly 15 years, the Peace Keepers have proudly been a positive force for students at Whitko. Even before it was a Jr./Sr. high school, the Peace Keepers were the first responders to everyday events.

They are students in grades seven through 12, and they are all on the front lines of influencing their fellow students to make wise choices, especially when it comes to those “gray areas” in life that seem to muddy the clarity of making the right choice.

Mental fortitude, self-respect, fair tone, proper response, being assertive and understanding personality types were all topics of discussion throughout the three-day, overnight event hosted at Koinonia’s conference center by Whitko Jr./Sr. High’s Peace Keepers.

Koinonia is a theological term often used in referencing fellowship or communion with others. It seemed only fitting that the Peace Keepers chose this location while discussing sensitive topics such as bullying, cheating, the “R” word and other topics they hoped to lead their fellow classmates to rise above. Together, they would expand their worldview to include a shared set of morals and ethics.

On this trip, students were not merely active participants in the training, they were administering the schedule and leading the way in big and small tasks alike. Preparing meals, cleaning up after sessions and setting up before each session, the upperclassmen specifically carried the bulk of the weight as an example to the underclassmen to set expectations.

The unity and bond the group created was evidenced before they ate together at each meal. The students would hold hands in a large circle, observe a moment of silence, and during the silence they were encouraged to reflect internally about things for which they were thankful.

As the entire circle of students held hands, Mike Hanback would squeeze the hand of the person next to him, and that gesture was replicated until it had traveled around the entire group of students and returned back to him. And then it was time to eat. In this way, Hanback garnered the respect and unity of his students.

“We tend to make judgments on people before we even get to know them,” Hanback told the students. Hanback has led the Peace Keepers for the past decade and then some. He has helped students learn to navigate challenging topics, using his own life story to lead by example. The event is set up intentionally to allow Hanback to introduce qualities that require shock value and others to engender a reality check. Through it all, Hanback leads his students across high and low points that require personal reflection, emotion and maturity in each and every student.

Role playing various scenarios assisted the students to better understand how a situation could look when they are confronted by it in real life. Sometimes, students would have to role play a specific scene. In one example, one student pretended to be a bully and another the target or victim. Through watching the different outcomes of the skits, students were able to observe how responses to bullies can feed or starve a bully’s poor behavior.

“The absolute vast majority of the people at our schools could be considered by-standers. They’re not actually involved in the bullying, but they’re not actively involved in the stopping,” Hanback said.

In the scenarios acted out, some victims responded aggressively while others were more passive, but the best outcome, decidedly, was using an assertive response to oppose bullies.

Assertive people, as defined by the retreat’s curriculum, are people who see their needs as being just as important as those of others. They are willing to negotiate in order to solve problems.

This is what Peace Keepers is about: taking the knowledge from their training and sharing it with their classmates as they experience these same scenarios in the real world.

During another session, which Hanback called “Flash Judgements,” students had an opportunity to view black-and-white portraits on a projected screen and assess different qualities about individuals without being given any background information whatsoever.

Based solely on appearance, the students processed some of their initial judgments, and then Hanback stood the topic on its head. He reminded them, “We have a pretty bad habit of labeling people before we ever get to know them. And we all do it. Why?”

Enlightening the students to who the people in the portraits really were, students immediately began to understand that the old adage of judging a book by its cover carries considerable wisdom. As a result, Hanback asked them to contrast some of their flash judgments against what they now knew to be the truth.

Cheating emerged as a very hot topic, and was seen as a major gray area. Students called cheating a gray area because it was a topic that they felt was paralyzing to their ability to respond and take correct action, especially since the right choice didn’t seem immediately clear.

Some students felt it should be allowed for someone to cheat sometimes, but not all the time. For example, students’ initially assessed that maybe it was acceptable to cheat on homework but not on a test, but like most groups, as the discussion progressed, they began to self-correct toward a better choice which identified cheating as being wrong altogether.

“Right and wrong does exist. [And] it is going to be hard to do the things we are going to train you to do,” Hanback said.

When asked about the retreat to Koinonia, junior Meagan Christoffel said, “We are 5-year-returning [students], and it’s honestly the best experience. Most people only see Mr. Hanback from the teacher standpoint, he’s very assertive — he puts on that approach — and when we come here, like we saw the masks yesterday. We saw a completely different him. He threw his mask away and completely broke down. We get to see that vulnerability with him. And the kids realize that there is so much more to people. And that’s what they get from him. They get that this is something that actually is meaningful.”

The mask Christoffel referenced was introduced in a session where Hanback asked each student to create their own mask over a 30-minute span. The masks were aimed at showing who students felt others perceived them to be. Students detailed categories across their masks to include gamers, popular students, jobs they perform or athletics.

Even Hanback created a mask, and stood in front of the group, and showing real emotion, he explained the different things on his mask that he felt identified him. Then, he purposefully threw it in the trash. Then, it was very quiet. He invited the students to do the same. And, slowly, they stood up as a unified group and threw the masks they had worked hard on, masks that represented who society sees them as, they threw them in the trash. Every single student did this.

“You know, at lunch yesterday, I was sitting, talking to a couple kids and one wants to be cook. And I was like ‘That’s fantastic! I watch Gordon Ramsay, let’s talk about it, you know?’” junior and quarterback for the football team Dominick Mosely said. “And so, I just love being able to take my mask off and have this relationship with these kids. And it’s so natural, and it’s not ‘Hey, you like football?’ OK, let’s put this mask on. And you know, you can just be yourself with these people.”

Some sessions were aimed specifically to break down comfort zones by creating moments with laughter and creativity. Many of the mixer games helped the group to unify and made the sessions more valuable because students now felt comfortable in front of their peers in a way that wasn’t reflecting their mask any longer, but reflected how they truly wanted others to see them. In this, there was a trust engendered by the group that grew throughout the entirety of the experience.

The most challenging experience by far and most memorable to the students was the trust walk. This activity paired each student up with a partner. One would be blindfolded while the other would lead them through the grounds of Koinonia, through the forest, and even down by the waters edge of the lake.

Reassuring their blindfolded partners by holding their hands, keeping arms near one another for balance, and using the calm in their voices, each student led their partner behind Hanback. The parallel to the job they would face when they re-entered their school shown once again. They will lead their classmates through tough situations that will happen at school, and while it won’t be easy, they will always have the guidance of their teacher, leader and mentor, Mike Hanback. More importantly, they now have each other.

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