The Davenport, Iowa, elementary school student is dressed in a purple T-shirt. Although it's June, the shirt is covered by a red hoodie with a fur hood and collar. With her long, light brown hair pulled back from her face, thick-rimmed glasses showcasing her thoughtful eyes, she listens to the most straightforward of questions.
What is bullying?
Her eyes drop, searching for answers. She finds it. The perfect answer.
"Bullying is when somebody is picking on you," she says, "and you want them to stop. But they don't, because they like weaknesses."
Her eyes dart back toward the camera, her answer complete and confidence returned. The screen fades to black.
The student and her 50 elementary school-age classmates are part of the All-Cultural Achievement Program, a summer journalism camp in Davenport that teaches media literacy, writing, public speaking, and responsible use of technology. ACAP recently finished its 14th year with a new goal: deliver a curriculum to the state that teaches elementary school kids how to protect themselves when they go online, what to do in the face of bullying, and how the Constitution of the United States factors into their everyday lives.
This isn't just teachers working with kids. It's kids teaching kids. ACAP has transformed itself from a local camp with local goals to one driven to benefit all of Iowa – from Cedar Falls to Ames, West Des Moines to Marion, Council Bluffs to Iowa City.
In April, 14-year-old Iowan Kenneth Wieshuhn committed suicide. Weishuhn, a gay teen, was harassed on Facebook by some of his high school peers. While past ACAP classes have studied and written about health and fitness, natural disasters and emergencies, and the environment, Weishuhn's death helped inspire ACAP staff to think about ways to reach beyond their own community.
"We can bring this to the whole state," said Deb Buttleman, the high school teacher from Davenport Central who has directed ACAP every summer since its inception. "Everyone can use this."
ACAP and its sister program, the Summer Journalism Academy out of Des Moines, are overseen by the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication. (Disclosure: this story's author works for UI-SJMC.) More than 1,000 Iowa elementary school students have gone through the program, which is funded by the University of Iowa's Chief Diversity Office. In addition to teaching students life skills, ACAP and Summer Journalism Academy students learn the importance of completing high school and college; just over 50 percent of this summer's 71 students are people of color, and nearly 60 percent are considered of low-income.
This year's group has put up a dozen YouTube videos, many of them public service announcements to fellow students that include messages such as:
- Log off websites when you're done using them.
- Protect yourself from strangers online. "I'm here to warn you," says one student, "that not everyone is who they say they are."
- Don't post status updates that might embarrass you or someone else.
An ACAP for Cedar Rapids, which could include students from Marion, has been proposed by Terrence Thames, owner of Advanced Media Production out of Waukee. Thames, who has assisted the Des Moines program for two years, said he sees a need for the program in one of Iowa's largest and most diverse markets.
"There are a lot of kids right there in Cedar Rapids and Marion who could benefit from this program," he said. "It might be journalism, but the skills they learn are skills they can carry with them all the way through life. It's about serving kids in Iowa."
ACAP's push for cybersafety for youth is its first statewide initiative. Along with the videos, students maintained a Facebook page and produced podcasts and a 10-page newspaper.
"We have them do everything. They do almost everything by themselves," Buttleman said. "They write their own stories and decide what kinds of things they're going to produce."
Response already is trickling in.
"Now there's interest in starting ACAP in Burlington," Buttleman said. "They see what we're doing here and what these kids are doing."
Find Dave Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.