First-grader Cavanaugh Bell is on a mission, and on Monday, he enlisted the Montgomery County school board to help.
Seven-year-old Cavanaugh, a student at Spark M. Matsunaga Elementary School in Germantown, asked the school board to help him work to eliminate bullying in MCPS.
“I come to you today to ask you to take a close look at how you can shape our schools to be more inclusive and safer spaces for change because there is a silent epidemic that no one wants to address that kids like me are being bullied and kids like me are also turning to suicide as the answer,” Cavanaugh said.
Cavanaugh hopes to “eradicate all bullying worldwide by November 2030” by strengthening bonds between teachers and students and ensuring all students feel safe in the classroom.
He founded the nonprofit Cool and Dope after being bullied and subsequently being told he was too young to be an advocate for change. In this case, “dope” is in the slang sense, referring to excellence.
“When I was five years old, I got tired of people telling me that I was too young to volunteer,” his website says, explaining when his activisim started.
Cavanaugh said he was bullied in preschool, which caused him to stop eating for several weeks. He has since channeled his experience to pressure classmates and adults to be kinder.
The organization’s self-proclaimed “Chief Positivity Creator,” Cavanaugh took “that darkness inside of me into a bright light that I’m using to change the world,” according to Cool and Dope’s website.
He meets with lawmakers about bullying prevention measures, gives motivational speeches across the region, creates educational resources and supports bullying survivors.
His website says he works at “being a dope human who loves all other humans.”
During his testimony to the school board on Monday, Cavanaugh said, “There is a breakdown in student-to-teacher relationships” and students “no longer feel safe in the classroom or in the hallways.”
He urged the board to improve its processes to respond to and prevent teachers from bullying students.
“See, the truth is, bullies come in all sizes, shapes, races, religions, genders and ages, so I need your help to do the hard work and make change happen, because our safety and our mental health matters, too,” Cavanaugh said.
In October, Cavanaugh advocated for bullying prevention before the Montgomery County Council. Last year, he encouraged the Gaithersburg City Council to declare Anti-Bullying Awareness Day in February. He has received a Certificate of Congressional Recognition from federal lawmakers.
After two rounds of applause for Cavanaugh for his speech, school board member Rebecca Smondrowski said she believes he is making a difference.
“I keep waiting for the day I see you on [The Ellen Show]. … That’s where you’ll be one day talking to all of us about the bullying issue,” Smondrowski said.
There were 1,312 student reports of bullying, harassment or intimidation in the 2017-18 school year, according to MCPS data.
The school system is currently developing an online form to report bullying. It is expected to be available by the end of the school year.
Early this month, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith unveiled a new plan to combat hate and bias throughout the school district, including increased mental health services and more interaction with the community following bias incidents.
Through a $110,000 grant from the Maryland State Department of Education, MCPS also plans to launch Project Interrupt, a training program for staff, students and community members to prevent and respond to bias and hate incidents.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org