published Sunday, November 17th, 2013

Kennedy: JBN: Just Be Nice a mantra for today

Teresa Molnar, a counselor at East Hamilton High School, is old enough to remember the 1980s anti-drug catch-phrase "Just Say No."

As slogans go, it was simple and to the point. It had a tip-of-the-tongue quality that made it easy to use as a shield against destructive impulses. It had its critics, sure, but people still remember it 30 years later.

What if, Molnar thought, there was a simple phrase like "Just Say No" that could bend today's teen culture toward civility, a bumper sticker for diplomacy and grace. Somehow, she wanted to convince teens and pre-teens to just be nicer to one another.

Maybe that's it, she thought: Just Be Nice -- or distilled a bit more, JBN.

The idea caught fire. Now, everywhere you go at East Hamilton School, home to 1,900 middle and high school students, JBN is displayed on signs and placards.

There are cups in the cyclone fencing outside the East Brainerd school arranged to spell out J-B-N. Kids wear JBN bracelets. There's even a JBN breakfast once a month for students seen modeling random acts of kindness.

Molnar said she got the idea from an old teacher's trick: sending a congratulatory postcard to parents of especially well-behaved students. She thought, why not encourage teachers to keep an eye out for kids being nice and to nominate them for monthly JBN awards?

There are drop boxes around the school where teachers can nominate students -- and even other teachers -- for things like helping clean up a mess or schlepping a box of books from a teacher's car.

Just Be Nice has even been invoked to calm nerves.

"Students are often overheard saying -- "Hey JBN!" -- when there's a disagreement brewing," says Margay McGee, a middle school counselor at East Hamilton.

There are cars parked in the school parking lot with JBN painted on the windows. There's even "a JBN fairy on Twitter that sprinkles JBN tweets to students who have posted negative comments," McGee reports.

If all this sounds a bit Pollyannish, please know there seems to be plenty of genuine student support.

Shawn Hickey, an 11th-grader at East Hamilton, said he was nominated for a JBN breakfast for befriending a Palestinian exchange student.

"When she first got here she was really shy," he says. "But now we're good friends."

Ann Abelle McGinnis, a ninth-grader, said she was recognized for helping some classmates with schoolwork. She enjoyed the breakfast of orange juice and doughnuts, she said.

"What motivates teens more than food?" she asked.

With all the talk today about mean teens and the scourge of bullying, it's good to see a school where nice is the norm.

Next stop for the JBN bandwagon, Congress.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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