Hundreds of young students flooded the halls of Hopkins West Junior High School on Friday morning clutching scissors, tape and reams of colorful wrapping paper.
Standing on chairs and squatting on the floor, they began to cut and plaster the paper around the school: on walls, on lockers, on classroom doors and on the ceiling. Their directive, as Principal Leanne Kampfe put it, was “less brick walls and more art.”
But this exercise was more than just another class assignment. For a school still reeling from the death of three students earlier this year, it was a chance to start anew.
“Finding a way for our kids to process what we went through last year is important,” Kampfe, 44, said. “Helping them feel agency in how we can move past that, and how the world can be a happy place even when we face loss, is huge.”
It has been a painful year for the Minnetonka school, where about 700 students are enrolled from seventh to ninth grades. The unexpected loss of the three students last winter, all within a month, left everyone — students, teachers and administrators — devastated. One student was hit by a car; the parents of the other two have asked for privacy.
Kampfe had taught at the school from 2007 to 2014 and had left to teach at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis. Last year was her first back as principal.
“We just kept putting one foot in front of the other,” Kampfe said. “When you suffer a loss like that as a community, you don’t process that and heal from that overnight.”
For many students, it was as if the school year had ended early, said Khadija Dahir, an eighth-grader from Hopkins. “No one really knew it was going to happen at all,” she said.
The deaths were a pause, leading Kampfe and the administration to reassess how students were treating one another. The state Health Department later pledged to reduce youth suicides, and wellness centers are scheduled to open at Hopkins High School and both junior highs this fall.
Kampfe knew it would take something outside of the traditional boundaries of public education to make the students comfortable at school once again. Beyond that, it was going to take a concerted effort to remind them inclusion is more than just a buzzword.
“We have to do more than just tell them we care about them,” she said. “We have to create opportunities for them to experience the reality of what it feels like to be caring to another person.”
When Minneapolis ad agency Periscope approached the district about its new nonprofit Project Peace Paper, Superintendent Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed recommended they launch it at Hopkins West.
They decided to host a school assembly on Sept. 21, declared as the International Day of Peace by the United Nations in 1981. School had started only a few weeks before.
The students made their way into the gym for a short presentation by Kampfe, Peace Paper member Kelsey Soby and students in the school’s Unified Club. They watched a couple of videos created by students that promoted antibullying.
Then, using the rolls of wrapping paper donated by the nonprofit, they decorated the school. Some students cut strips of paper to make a tree design on the wall. Others taped sheets over the fluorescent lights.
Each roll was a collage of different hand drawn images of peace and unity. “Love One Another,” read one square. “Be Kind,” read another. Others had drawings of doves, hearts and sunflowers.
At the end of the assembly, a group of students covered the front doors of the school with the paper.
For Soby, the paper is a visual reminder for students to be kind to one another.
“I hope it unifies them, it uplifts them and it reminds them that peace and kindness is something you have to work on every day,” she said. “It’s not something you can work on once a year or once in a while when the topic of bullying comes up.”
Hopkins West has other activities planned for the rest of the school year. Students, parents and teachers will paint a mural this fall that will be unveiled in January. They will also paint “kindness rocks” with positive messages they can share.
Members of the Unified Club expressed their hope that this school year will be better than the last one.
“I hope it keeps going on like this,” Dahir said. “This whole school is going to be filled with love and positivity if this keeps going.”
Quinn Ingham, 13, said she hopes everyone “wants to come to school rather than dreading it.”
“I hope that no one has to feel the way that they did last year,” she said.
Only three weeks in, Kampfe said this school year is already different. Students greet her at the front of the school first, not the other way around.
She hoped the students took pride in decorating the school, and was curious to see how long the paper would remain on the walls. After all, she said, “it’s paper, and it’s junior high.”