Joseph Dodds was hefting a stack of steaming pizza boxes through the halls of Corona del Sol High School’s campus one day when a student took notice.
“Where’s that pizza going?” the student asked.
“We get that question all the time,” Dodds chuckled.
The 28-year old youth pastor from nearby Arizona Community Church was headed for “Real Talk,” a popular lunchtime discussion group on campus that allows students to voice their thoughts on hot-button topics such as gun violence, drug use, drinking and suicide. “When you have giant pizzas, it kind of helps,” Dodds said.
The promise of free slices might draw students to attend initially, but the opportunity to speak freely about topics of intense concern keeps them coming back. There’s no debate and no one is allowed to criticize a fellow student’s viewpoint. The program began at Corona during the 2017-2018 school year.
“The format is simple,” Dodds said. “Each week we change topics, but they’re always things that are going around in our culture or big issues teens are dealing with.”
The discussion lasts for about 30 minutes. After that, Dodds or another Real Talk team leader offers a five- or 10-minute presentation on what the Bible teaches about the topic de joure.
Anywhere from 30-45 students attend the sessions each week. Last year, when Real Talk was offered during both lunch periods, attendance was twice that. “It’s a safe place for kids to go and voice their opinion and learn,” Dodds said.
He’s accompanied by a small cadre of adult men and women leaders from the church who share the pizza—and the discussions that flow around the table.
“The biggest thing is, this is one way—though not the only way—to reach them,” Dodds said. The majority of students who attend the weekly gathering are not Christian and Dodd says the group is open to all students. Arizona Community Church spends about $150 each week to buy the pizzas.
Dodd said one of the best-attended meetings took place after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida last February that left 17 people dead.
“That week we talked about it,” Dodds said. “We let the kids voice their thoughts, what they thought about the situation. That’s where I felt like we hit on something important, especially at Corona.”
The Tempe school has had several students die by suicide in recent years. One death took place on campus in 2015 when a student shot himself near the administration building.
Incidents of school violence around the country often precipitate even more students to attend Real Talk. After the Florida massacre, Dodds said students had plenty to say. “They talked about how their parents work all the time and they [the students] are kind of on their own. They don’t feel like there’s a place for them to go.
“They have to be the best at what they do—there’s a lot of pressure on them,” Dodds said.
Many students “feel like depression and suicide are contagious. If one person is depressed, they feel like it spreads,” Dodds said. They might be right.
Last year, in a note home to parents after a November2017 suicide by a Corona sophomore, Principal Nathan Kleve noted that “a student death by suicide also increases the chances of another suicide exponentially.”
According to Dodds, about 90 percent of attendees say they think about suicide—either that of someone they know or as an option for themselves. “It’s affecting their life,” Dodds said. “These are kids who seem perfectly happy who are thinking about this.”
If anyone admits they have a plan to take their life or if they say they’ve attempted suicide, Dodds treats it as an emergency. “We get parents and counselors involved.”
A lot of parents, he says, don’t like to be told they are doing it wrong. “You can be an amazing parent and your child can have these thoughts.”
“The truth is, no matter what, we’ve got to be there to support our kids. Stop wondering whose fault it is and think, ‘How can I help?’”
Real Talk is currently being offered at nine Valley schools. At Corona, the group meets on Wednesdays at 10:23 a.m. in C136.