Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes
GARNER, Iowa (AP) — One student-led crew is hoping to make kindness infectious at their local high school.
Between panda-costumed members who bear gifts to recognize those who go above and beyond to personalized, positive notes stuck to lockers at Garner-Hayfield/Ventura High School, Random Acts of Coolness (RAOC) is off to a good start.
The Mason City Globe Gazette reports (http://bit.ly/1fOoZf1 ) the organization, a social norm campaign that aims to spread healthy, constructive behavior, formed last fall after members discovered a third of students said they didn't feel respected, sophomore Katie Rasmuson said.
Their feelings were primarily based on mean-spirited comments made on social media.
RAOC has turned that around in a short amount of time. Today, 71 percent of students say classmates are treating them considerately, and Rasmuson, 16, said she sees peers getting along better and being more friendly to each other.
Freshman Derek Brown said he has seen more classmates sticking up for others.
All these actions have changed the school's environment for the better.
"By promoting kindness and respect, our group has helped make school have a more fun atmosphere by being nice to classmates," said senior Joel Toppin.
The student body has taken note of the 20-member group's random, covert and attention-grabbing antics.
Shortly after school started, RAOC's symbolic backward letter "R'' began to appear in mysterious places — on a trailer in the homecoming parade, colorful chalk drawings outside the high school and stickers plastered throughout the building.
Conspiracy theories swirled before the mystery was revealed in a special school assembly after homecoming, and some displays were perhaps a little too eye-catching.
Several parents contacted the school after chalk-drawn Rs appeared on the cement outside, concerned that a gang may have formed.
Little did they know it would be a group advocating positive behavior, something senior Bri Bier said the Department of Education was especially pleased with during a recent site visit.
Those who get caught in an act of coolness, like helping an elderly community member down the bleachers at a sports event, get a special package personally delivered by the group's panda mascot.
Toppin, 18, regularly dons his black-and-white costume when delivering T-shirts or water bottles filled with rubber bracelets, pens, lip balm and other fun goodies. He was joined Wednesday morning by Brown, 14, to deliver three such presents.
When the bears are spotted, it usually results in smiles, giggles and sometimes a bit of excitement.
"Dos pandas!" Spanish instructor Katrina Klooster exclaimed as Toppin and Brown entered her classroom.
With a sophisticated marketing campaign that now includes backward D stickers, a play on the top part of the letter R, physical education teacher Dyan Childress, who's involved with the program, said RAOC intends to be a long-lasting project to show students that someone has their back.
"It's not just a one-year thing," said junior Mackenzie Haag, 16.
The group hopes a similar version will spread throughout other North Iowa schools.
"We hope other communities will see what we're doing and follow our lead," said Bier, 18.
Information from: Globe Gazette, http://www.globegazette.com/
This AP Member Exchange was shared by the Globe Gazette.