TACOMA, Wash. -- As the students tell it, the school year did not start well for the freshmen at Franklin Pierce High School.
"We actually had, in the first two months, more fights with particularly the freshman than the entirety of last year with all the classes combined," said Tono Sablan, 15, the freshman class president. "At one point, we actually had to make some adjustments with the lunch, take certain kids and put them in the first lunch, and take certain kids and put them in the second lunch."
"There were a lot of kids that had a lot of issues and a lot of anger," said freshman Maddy Crowley, 15.
The sometimes daily fights involving a handful of freshman-- whether racially motivated, gang-related, or just immature behavior -- severely tarnished the reputation of the incoming class, said Sablan,
"I knew a lot of upperclassmen," said Sablan, "and I had so many of them come up to me, [asking] 'Why are the freshmen acting the way they are? They're stupid, they're ruining everything for us.'"
Fixing his class reputation is why Sablan created a slide presentation he called Project UNITE and brought it to his teacher, Colin Horak, 39.
In it, he listed several sources of discrimination and bullying -- from racial profiling to cyber-bullying -- and proposed opening dialogue within the freshman class.
The group that grew around Project UNITE eventually held assemblies, spoke in English classes at the school, recorded public service announcement videos, and created t-shirts and bracelets, all surrounding one particular symbol.
"This is the international sign language symbol for 'I love you,'" said Sablano, making the corresponding hand gesture.
The "I love you" hand symbol also became a part of a series of handshakes that spread through the school.
"Since Project UNITE's inception, the freshman class went from the most disrespected class on campus to, to be honest with you, the most respected," said Horak, who said the number of fights involving freshmen dropped dramatically as the year went on.
The project also sparked members of the leadership class to create a second program called "Speak Out," which touches on difficult topics like depression and teen suicide.
"We're one class rather than however many cliques [there] were at the beginning of the year," said Chloe Dawson, 15.
Project UNITE and Horak have a chance to present the program at a world education conference in South Africa, held by Microsoft, and also as part of the ongoing competition.
Tono has been elected sophomore class president.