You can find a bully anywhere. It’s hard to stop them. It’s even harder to change a school’s culture. But students and staff members at Minnehaha Elementary School are working to do both.

Helping set the example is a group of fourth- and fifth-graders called the Stand Up Club. Created by students, the club works to diminish bullying and advocate for treating others with dignity. A critical part of their strategy is empowering bystanders to act when a power imbalance may lead to disrespect.

Not everyone feels comfortable speaking up in confrontational situations, but being a bystander can have consequences for both victim and observer, says a club member. “You’re letting them get hurt; you’re not helping them. You might feel bad, and then other people might get bullied,” she says.

Minnehaha students learn how to employ a tool for intervention: a swift, chopping hand motion delivered with an emphatic request to stop the negative behavior. If the gesture doesn’t have the intended effect, students are taught to walk away and talk to an adult.

Lee Gunter, Minnehaha, counselor

Learn more about Minnehaha school psychologist Lee Gunter.

To acknowledge their peers who do this, the Stand Up Club makes buttons and certificates—sometimes during their recess—that are awarded at school assemblies. They also design and display posters with pro-respect sentiments in kid-friendly vocabulary. “I think of a kid language and an adult language, and

[kids] understand more of the child language than the adult one,” says another club member.

Their fellow students seem to be absorbing the message. “It’s helped us to have more conversations about respect and increase people’s awareness,” says school psychologist Lee Gunter, who facilitates the club. Staff members also undergo training to respond appropriately. The work aligns with efforts by many other VPS schools and by the district to create safe, supportive learning environments.

Though addressing the issue of disrespect is a work in progress, and not just at Minnehaha, “it’s become part of our school community,” Gunter says.

To reinforce that point, the Stand Up Club tackled one last project before summer break—creating a large banner that will hang in the school.

The message will be one that is already familiar, thanks to the Stand Up Club and the students and staff working hard to change the culture: Everybody deserves respect at Minnehaha.

This and other stories originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Inside Vancouver Public Schools.