Next to a picture of a broken heart, 13 year old Rachel Ehmke wrote, "I'm fine = I wish I could tell you how I really feel." These were her last words before the pretty, blonde seventh grader hanged herself at her home on April 29. Months of bullying took its toll - chewing gum in her school books, derogatory names on her locker, a group of girls spreading rumors and a final mass text to her middle school classmates calling her a "slut" and urging them to get her to leave the school.
Sadly Ehmke is not alone, and, though many teen suicides are speculated to be connected to bullying, not all of them are reported. Those that are number between 15 to 25 annually according to www.teendepression.org. Based on those incidents and suicide notes left by the victims, 77 percent say they were victims of bullying; 58 percent were the objects of "name calling, rumors and slanderous comments;" 42 percent were bullied online and 35 percent threatened online.
Life as a bullied victim isn't easy, as evidenced in a campaign against a 10 year old Virginia boy who endured racial slurs and name calling and was finally beaten and burned with cigarettes on his school bus. National statistics on bullying are equally sobering:
Union Local Elementary School’s “Wall of Kindness” is a daily reminder to the students of how to treat each other.
On Unity Day students and teachers at Union Local wore Unity t-shirts, available from Think Before You Speak, and the color orange in recognition of Bully Prevention Month.
Students in the “Be a Buddy, Not a Bully” Club at Union Local Elementary, read statistics on bullying to their schoolmates during a Unity Day assembly. Think Before You Speak founder Lori Kovacs is seated on the stage, holding the microphone. Ohio school districts, like Union Local, are required to have a harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) policy in place to provide information on reporting, stopping and disciplining attacks on students.
A survey of 335 middle school students from Belmont County found that 76 percent say that there are bullies at their school, and 16 percent think punishments should be more severe. A middle school average of 22 percent have thought of leaving school because of bullying, a figure that leaps to 30 percent in the seventh grade. In this local segment, 10 percent - 33 students - have thought of harming themselves because of bullying.
What is bullying exactly? Ohio's Jessica Logan Law, HB116, passed on Feb. 2, 2012, defines it as "any intentional written, verbal or physical act that a student has exhibited toward another particular student more than once, and the behavior both causes mental or physical harm to the other student and is sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive that it creates an intimidating, threatening or abusive education environment for the other student." This includes dating violence and cyber-bullying using a cell phone, computer or other electronic communication device.
Lori Kovacs, president and founder of the non-profit Think Before You Speak, has begun educating children on what to do if they witness bullying, become a victim or want to stop being a bully. She is working with students at Union Local Elementary and Middle Schools to bring the issue to the forefront, help students become activists against bullying and create a more positive school climate.
Kylie Morgan, 17, from Oklahoma City, has been named to the Country Music Association's "Who New to Watch" and was invited to appear on E!'s "Opening Act." Her video for "Phoebe (It Matters What We Do)" earned a gold ADDY award, and the song is available on iTunes. T-shirts and wristbands supporting the anti-bullying cause are available on her website, www.KylieMorgan.com. Morgan is a spokesperson for Pacer.org's anti-bullying campaign and visited Union Local for two concerts and to spread the word about bully prevention. Glynis Valenti interviewed her when she visited Union Local on Oct. 10, anti-bullying "Unity Day."
Times Leader: Have you been involved with advocacy projects before?
Kylie Morgan: Yes. It started with a song I wrote after hearing about my classmate's little sister who was battling cancer. It's called "She's Our Miracle," and it was my first single. The American Cancer Society picked it up. All the proceeds go there.
TL: What was bullying like at your school?
KM: There was teasing, bullying, rumors. It happened to me in the seventh grade, but I want kids to know that even if they're young, there are things they can do to stop it. I want to help them build up their confidence.
TL: What was it about Phoebe's story in particular that struck you enough to write about it?
KM: When I went to Nashville to write [with song writers Liz Hengber and Rob Crosby] I had no intention of writing an advocacy song. Then someone told me about Phoebe Prince. We were the same age, 15, and I couldn't imagine dealing with the things she had to go through. Now we're using the song to promote bully prevention.
TL: What are the best comments or stories you've heard since your anti-bullying efforts?
KM: There was one girl who wrote to me on Facebook and thanked me. She was a bully and said, "You made me want to stop." At a school that I visited, a 9 year old boy came up to me and told me he respected what I was doing and that he wanted to change. I was surprised because he was so articulate for a young boy, but a teacher told me afterwards that I must have really made an impression because he was the biggest bully in the school.
TL: What is something that would make you say, "This is why I do this?"
KM: I get a lot of messages saying, "I want to do what you do." They want to start their own anti-bullying clubs or campaigns. It's a good feeling that kids are inspired. I'm really big about giving back. Messages like that are proof that it's making a difference.
She identifies the members of a typical clique scenario. There is a "Queen Bee or King Pin" who controls the group; a "Sidekick" who wants to please the controller; a "Banker" who collects information for the "Queen Bee/King Pin;" a "Pleaser" who changes her/his beliefs, clothes, attitude, etc. to fit in to the clique; a "Victim" who is the target of the abuse; a "Torn Bystander" who wants to do the right thing but doesn't want to upset those in control; a "Floater" who does stand up for her/himself or others.
Generally intention distinguishes bullying from "kidding around." Bullying is malicious and continually preys on someone weaker or different in some respect to the bully (for instance size, age, socio-economic status) that makes the bully feel superior. It doesn't have to involve a physical fight, though 80 percent of bullying episodes end with a physical confrontation. Actual physical bullying can include punching, hair pulling, kicking and threats of physical violence. Verbal bullying includes name calling, belittling and rumors. Either of these could include sexual bullying-unwanted sexual contact, advances or comments.
Other forms of bullying include emotional intimidation (most commonly excluding the victim from a group, activity or event) and racial bullying, including slurs and comments about the victim's culture and beliefs.
Research indicates that 60 percent of male middle school bullies will have at least one criminal conviction by age 24. Many also become involved with drugs and alcohol and drop out of school. At the other end of the spectrum, a small percentage of victims retaliate by bringing weapons to school and shooting their classmates and teachers.
Ohio schools are now required to institute and implement cyber-bullying policies and provide instruction for teachers and information to parents regarding the policies. Ohio Revised Code 3313.666 already requires school policies on bullying, intimidation and harassment (HIB) including definition, prohibition and procedures on documentation, reporting and discipline.
"Most people come together after a tragedy," says Kovacs. "I want to get everyone together and address bullying before something happens." This is the reason for Think Before You Speak, an acronym asking if the words are true, helpful, inspiring, necessary and kind. A certified trainer for Utterly Global, Kovacs is offering a K-12 bully prevention curriculum that "promotes a positive school environment."
Kovacs notes that middle school used to be the problem area, but bona fide bullying is beginning in the fourth grade and peaking in the sixth grade. Union Local just adopted an anonymous reporting system for both students and parents to alert select administrators of bullying issues.
At Union Local Elementary the "Be a Buddy, Not a Bully" club has more than 20 members. They will learn about how to avoid being a victim and how to become an active bystander when they see bullying taking place. The middle school program, "Stand Up, Speak Out," will teach some of the same principles as those students create rap songs, poetry and a play to spread the word to other students.
Her program recently brought 17 year old country singer Kylie Morgan to UL for an evening concert and an anti-bullying assembly in recognition of October as "Bully Prevention Month." Morgan, on the Country Music Association's list of "Who New to Watch," was herself a victim of middle school bullying and shared her experience with the elementary school assembly. Morgan has become a spokesperson for the anti-bullying movement, and her song "Phoebe (It Matters What We Do)" tells the story of 15 year old Phoebe Prince who was relentlessly bullied until she took her own life on Jan. 14, 2010.
Before Morgan's evening concert, attended by students and parents from several area schools, students interviewed were clear on the message: don't bully, "don't judge" and "treat each other better." All of the students had witnessed bullying at their schools, but one UL eighth grader says she's seen a decrease over the past couple of years because of programs like Rachel's Challenge and Think Before You Speak. A group of middle school boys added that they like the concept of Think Before You Speak because of its positive message. The St. Clairsville dance troupe Dance Difference also performed at the concert and accompanied Morgan.
What did students think of Kylie Morgan as a spokesperson? "Really cool" was the unanimous consensus. "She's only 17 and has done so much," noted one eighth grade girl and added that Morgan is definitely a role model, especially for young girls.