“Don’t Be A Monster,” a national anti-bullying campaign, stopped at McCormick Middle School on Tuesday and illustrated the many consequences of repeated in-school harassment.
The campaign was started by 13 owners of haunted houses across the country and incorporates Halloween themes into its messaging, such as “Frank,” a Frankenstein monster inspired character who’s the target of bullying in videos presented.
“I had a friend whose seventh-grade son drank laundry detergent after being bullied for a long time,” said local program organizer Derek Vitas. “Myself and other haunted house owners got together in Chicago and tried to think of ways to give back to our communities. We all put some money in to make these videos and get in the schools, especially during October.”
October was tabbed as National Bullying Prevention Month in 2006 by the PACER Center, a nonprofit training organization in Minnesota for families of children living with disabilities.
According to PACER and the Department of Health and Human Services, an instance of bullying occurs once every seven seconds. Twenty percent of students are bullied at some point in school but only 36 percent of those incidents are reported.
Since 2007, the percentage of students who’ve experienced bullying online has nearly doubled from 18 to 34.
“You go to a haunted house to have fun and see fake monsters, but there’s actual monsters in real life,” said Vitas. “They’re right here in our schools. They’re bullies. My job, my goal, and my wish is to get rid of this. We want the only monsters to be pretend ones in costumes.”
In videos, “Frank” encounters bullies who point out his “thrift store clothes,” tell him he smells bad, and stop him from sitting at certain tables during lunch. With the help of two friends who stand up for him, he narrowly avoids letting anger toward his bullies boil over into hostile actions of his own.
“Being your age shaped me more than any of my experiences today,” Vitas told students. “Many kids who work at haunted houses are shy but that shyness goes away once they put a mask on.”
McCormick eighth-grader Harley Wallace said she’s experienced bullying at school.
“I’ve been made fun of because of how I look,” she said. “People just have to speak up and not let the problem go for a long time. I didn’t use to speak up but I started to lately.”
Wallace said she has received menacing texts urging her to hurt herself; a loved one also recently attempted to harm themselves as a result of bullying encountered during school hours and online.
Fellow eighth-grader Jace Diedrick lets hostile words roll off his back.
“I just move on,” he said. “When people say negative things like that, I know it’s not true, so I just don’t really care.”
School guidance counselor Carolyn Abbey said McCormick has been proactive in encountering bullying and that evolving technology has rapidly changed students’ communication and how administrators respond to hostile situations.
“The fact that students can type things they wouldn’t say to a person’s face has forever changed how they interact with each other,” she said. “I find that a lot of students don’t have the social skills they need to carry on conversations and deal with conflict. Social media is definitely part of that. When we approach stamping out bullying, what’s going on online has to be addressed.”
“I think we notice bullying more now,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s happening more. It happened to me in school and it happened to these gentlemen here today in school. It’s a problem that’s been around for a long time but now there’s a new venue for it. Often when we find out about a bullying situation, it’s two years after it started. We can’t address it until we hear about it. We all try to address every instance and I know they do at the high school as well.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.