“If you really knew me, this is what you’d know.”
At the Freire Charter School in Philadelphia, that was the prompt given to two dozen students as they stood before 500 peers, sharing personal stories and intimate details about their lives. The concept sounds intimidating, but it is how Freire school officials create a campus environment of empathy and community among its students and prevent future violence and tragedy.
“When a community can come together and celebrate the humanity in each of our kids,” said school head Kelly Davenport, “that gives each and every one of our students the right just to be who they are, and to make that OK.”

Violent outbursts often stem from feeling isolated, Davenport explains, and creating a public forum such as this lets students know they’re not alone in their struggles. The goal of these sharing assemblies is to give students a means of expressing themselves without feeling judged or criticized, school organizer Dave Shahriari told NPR.

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“Kids have a lot to say, and I thought it could be really humanizing and helpful for the school as a community if they could say it in a safe space in front of each other,” he adds.

Elijah, a tenth-grader, was among the dozen students to share his story at the nearby Unitarian church (the school does not have an auditorium large enough to accommodate its students). He explained he was fortunate to have a support network of friends and a good relationship with his grandmother — but that he is often troubled with depression and has thoughts of suicide.

Upon his confession, Elijah implored his classmates who really care about him and his issues to stand up. The church roared with a standing ovation. Weeks later, Elijah still feels the love.

“They hug me or they give me a handshake, and then they was telling me stories like, ‘Yeah, I know what you was dealing with. I went through the same thing,'” he said.

Another tenth-grader, Tyshierra, revealed that behind her humor and lighthearted personality, there’s a story of loss and hurt. The West Philly native confessed to classmates that her mother was a drug dealer and was allegedly strangled to death by her boyfriend.

Shortly thereafter, Tyshierra’s father passed away of liver cancer. After a whirlwind of meetings with child protection caseworkers and participating in counseling programs, she and her siblings were finally taken in by their aunt.

“Losing my mother was my biggest fear,” she said. “Since that has already happened, I fear nothing and no one. Ya’ll see me as goofy, funny or whatever else, but deep down inside, I’m hurting for the way my life is.”

But even Tyshierra has felt the powerful effects of the brave choice to share her story with her peers.

Before the assembly, “everybody just was like, ‘OK, we at school,’ ” Tyshierra said. “But now, it’s like we feel like a family, like we know all that about each other.”

Perhaps it helped that the students divulged their secrets in the calm sanctuary of a church. But regardless of the location, it’s empowering to see a school that’s making its students feel safe with something other than added security or more metal detectors.