I’ve spent years being bullied in school, but now I’ve found hope. I want to bring it to others.

Scotts Valley High School student Maddy Rutherford
(Via Madelyne Rutherford)

Maddy Rutherford is a ninth grader at Scotts Valley High and says she has been bullied since elementary school. Her experiences filled her with self-doubt and made her not want to go to school. This year, her first in high school, she was selected to be in a new program at Scotts Valley High called Hope Squad, which makes her part of a team of students who help students in need of friendship or someone to talk to. Scotts Valley is the only Santa Cruz County school with this program. She thinks that should change.

Struggling with mental health in high school is tough. Not being able to talk about it is tougher.

I’m a ninth grader at Scotts Valley High School and I regularly see issues of bullying, depression, peer pressure, competition and much more.

I speak from personal experience when I say sometimes it feels like these problems pile up on each other, again and again — an endless weight that keeps pressing. I find myself repeating the same questions: “When will this end?” “Why is this happening?” “Why can’t all of these issues just go away?”

That’s why Hope Squad exists.

Hope Squad is a national organization that empowers kids to help fight bullying. It’s in approximately 1,600 schools across the United States and Canada. This is the first year it exists at Scotts Valley High and so far, no other Santa Cruz County schools have it.

In our Hope Squad meetings — which happen during school once or twice a month — we talk about issues students face, including depression, anorexia and self-harm, and how to handle them, what to do and say to try to help.

There are 55 of us in the group — 10 to 15 get voted in by students for each grade. Being part of Hope Squad regularly reminds me of the importance of being there for others. It’s shown me that no one, including me, is ever really alone in a situation.

With school starting again this week, I am incredibly grateful to have it. It makes me want to go to school.

It works like this: Members of Hope Squad look for peers around campus who seem shut down or stressed and could use an open ear. The students might be depressed, anxious, even suicidal.

Those are the moments it’s hardest to reach out, to trust someone enough to talk to them. Usually, you are too isolated or afraid. That’s why it helps that we on Hope Squad approach students who seem to be in need. We make them feel we are available, have time and that they can open up to us.

Sometimes, when I approach someone, I talk about my own experiences with bullying, with feeling I don’t fit in. I find talking about my own problems helps ease the conversation, makes them feel less guarded, like they are not alone in their struggles.

Unfortunately, I have a lot to share.

My experiences with bullying started in elementary school. I know, that was years ago, but those experiences marked me and shaped my feelings about the need for students to have an outlet like Hope Squad.

Here’s what happened.

A new girl, I’ll call her Carla, had transferred into school in third grade and I saw it as a chance to make a new friend, so I began talking to her. I invited her to join me and my best friend for lunch, and not long after, we became close friends.

Unfortunately, I did not realize what the outcome of befriending Carla would be.

She inexplicably began to target me, and by that I mean to talk bad about me behind my back, exclude me while we were hanging out with friends, pull my friends away from me, resist being near me, and one time when a friend called her over, she said she couldn’t join us because I was there.

She would have her friends hold her hands while she kept her eyes closed because she couldn’t look at me while passing by.

She spread a nasty rumor about me, too, which has followed me throughout middle and high school. People believed her lie and, because of it, they looked at me differently.

Scotts Valley High School student Maddy Rutherford
(Via Madelyne Rutherford)

The biggest threat occurred in fifth grade, when she told another friend of mine she wanted to destroy my life, which was scary to hear. It was my first experience with a direct threat and I didn’t know how to handle what I was hearing. Since then, I have found it hard to agree with others when they claim she is a nice person.

My mom and I got the school staff involved, including teachers and the principal. Unfortunately, this did not work out as I had hoped, even after my mom and I explained everything I had experienced.

The school, in my view, didn’t handle it well.

That shocked me. This was definitely the first time I realized school staff and teachers are not always fair about solutions.

Mental health resources

  • If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, 24-hour, multilingual trained help is available by calling the 988 hotline. Find more information from the Family Service Agency of the Central Coast.
  • Trevor Lifeline (LGBTQ): 866-488-7386.
  • Call 911 for emergency services, call your doctor or go to an emergency room.
  • For more resources, visit the Santa Cruz County Behavioral Health Division website.

It was also the first time the questions began to flood my mind, to overwhelm me. Unfortunately, the bullying continued, so the questions got heavier and more powerful, along with my self-doubt.

One instance occurred (and continues to occur) in one of my classes. This story is one I think many high school students can relate to, as there is a lot of social drama in high school, and the particular student I refer to has caused issues for others, not just me. In this class, a student regularly undermines me by being silently competitive, sending friends to spy on me, stripping me of all authority in front of others, and making comments that are subtly insulting. The student hides this behavior by acting pleasant around staff and teachers, so they don’t suspect what is happening.

This is a student I have to work with every day who regularly does this to me. Each day, it gets more and more confusing.

I don’t understand why she has “chosen” me to target, why she is kind to others and makes comments that are rude to me. I know social hardships happen all the time in high school. I’ve heard from other students with similar problems.

Some of them even mention the same person.

For me, voicing how I feel aloud makes it feel a little less overwhelming than when I keep it to myself. It loses some of its weight. It becomes less of a disease. Additionally, talking to another person about the problem gives them a chance to suggest advice, which could help tremendously.

Again, that’s where Hope Squad helps.

According to the official Hope Squad site, “The Hope Squad program was built by educators in partnership with mental health experts. … Hope Squad members are trained to take action when someone is struggling. Instead of waiting for a peer to come to them, Hope Squad members are the ones to reach out first.”

As a Hope Squad member, and someone who has dealt with my own share of social hardships, I can truthfully say students prefer to go to other students — rather than going to school staff — with their issues. If you do work up the courage to talk to a counselor at school, the counselor might have only a 15-minute time slot. That can feel off-putting, like your problem isn’t actually important enough to take time to address.

The few times I went to speak with a counselor about how another student was treating me, I only felt like a burden to the counselor — like they had listened to so many students already, they weren’t even listening attentively to me. I felt stupid, unimportant, unheard.

Scotts Valley High School student Maddy Rutherford
(Via Madelyne Rutherford)

But when I talked to a friend about how I was feeling, they made me feel my issue mattered. As it turned out, that friend was dealing with the same problem, so they related with me strongly, and we decided to go about working through the situation together.

I felt relieved to know I wasn’t alone.

The best part about talking to Hope Squad members is that instead of going to a friend who will just listen, you’re going to a friend who is trained to help.

Also, unlike staff, students are not mandated reporters. Knowing someone has to report what you say can feel threatening, especially when you are already in a dark place. You don’t necessarily want your feelings “reported.”

We simply listen to the person, help them work through their feelings, and continually check in with them to make sure they’re doing all right.

The only problem is, not enough schools have Hope Squad.

According to the Hope Squad site, about 1,600 schools in the U.S. and Canada have the program. That is not very many. The U.S. alone has more than 97,000 public schools. This is one reason why I want to voice my opinions about Hope Squad because I think it should be spread to more school districts in Santa Cruz County and beyond.

Research shows it works. Data from 2018, suggests students with suicidal thoughts from Hope Squad schools are more likely than students from non-Hope Squad schools to ask for help.

That is huge. It says it all.

One final point I want to make is that even bullies need someone to talk to.

Sometimes when a person is being mean to another, they are simply going through a tough time of their own. This doesn’t excuse their behavior, but maybe if they were able to voice their feelings and receive help, the amount of bullying would reduce.

I feel better when I can help others. It helps me get through my own dark times.

I know there are others like me out there.

If they could get the connection and healing Hope Squad provides, if they could be a part of Hope Squad, like I am, I think our schools would be more welcoming places, with more chances for student bonding and compassionate conversations, less bullying, and — most important — more hope.

Madelyne Rutherford, 15, is a ninth grader at Scotts Valley High School. She is an avid pianist who has been performing through the Music Teachers Association of California for five years and now plays in music conventions. This year, she will compete in a music festival. She is passionate about music and reading and cares deeply about her family and friends. She has lived in Santa Cruz County her entire life.

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