COMMENTARY: Sustained efforts necessary to stop bullying in school

Working in the news business can be pretty grim, but last week I was blessed to take part in events that definitely made up for all the bad news.

On Thursday morning, I was honored to participate in three National Day of Prayer ceremonies in Indialantic, Indian Harbour Beach and Satellite Beach and it was great to see strangers and neighbors come together to pray for America.

But the highlight of the week was covering an anti-bullying speech at Ocean Breeze Elementary School. Using his department’s forfeiture funds, Indian Harbour Beach Police Chief David Butler brought in former WWE wrestler and 24-year Brevard resident Chris Hollyfield to share his inspiring story.

Ocean Breeze is still healing from a March incident in which a sixth-grader claimed to have a “kill list” in his head of students and teachers he wanted to harm. That student has not returned to Ocean Breeze, but he is not the only pupil who left the school. Several affected by the incident have transferred, or opted for virtual school or homeschooling. Their absence is felt as the year comes to a close, with photos in the yearbook of kids not there to sign on friends’ pages. When sixth-graders graduate, notable faces will be missing.

None of this had to happen.

As the story unfolded, parents and students close to the situation said the whole thing spiraled out of control because the student was bullied and, in turn, became a bully himself. Details of the investigation remain confidential, and no charges were filed, so the public will probably never know what really happened.

Of course, students are told that bullying is unacceptable, and that bullying carries serious consequences, but apparently that deterrent didn’t work. So Chief Butler and Principal Laurie Hering tackled the problem by educating kids about how bullying hurts.

Hollyfield, a former Delaura Middle School student, knows what it’s like to be bullied. He was born with a form of genetic dwarfism. At 50 years old, he stands at 4 feet, 4 inches high.

In school, he was 3-feet-something tall. There was no one at school who looked like him. He was not chosen when kids picked teams for sports. Bullies hung Hollyfield from garment hooks in the gym. He was shunned and isolated. He was physically hurt. He was verbally taunted. Plenty of kids looked on but did nothing to stop the bullying.

Painful as this experience was – especially since Hollyfield was a military kid and changed schools often – he not only survived, but thrived. These challenges forged Hollyfield into a super-confident and gregarious guy. After excelling on the high school wrestling team, he wrestled with celebrities like The Rock and John Cena. Hollyfield used that success to launch himself into his next role as a motivational speaker, serving up straight talk about bullying to kids at thousands of schools.

His message in a nutshell: It’s more than OK to be different. Respect yourself, love your neighbor, treat others the way you want to be treated. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you are being bullied. Don’t be a bystander, say or do something to stop the bullies. Dressed in a Phillies baseball jersey and a backwards ball cap, Hollyfield delivered that message with style, humor, a lot of heart and a good helping of swag. He won the kids over, big time. They lined up to get a high five, or an autograph. They mugged for the cameras. The energy was palpable.

After school I asked my son what he thought. As always, his insight was sobering.

“It was good for all the kids who are being bullied,” he said. “But I don’t think it will make any difference to the bullies.”

What will make a difference to the bullies? My son said principals need to “bring back the paddle.”

Out of the mouths of babes. Short of bringing back the paddle, I asked, what can be done?

“It needs to not just be one day. It needs to be every day,” he said. He’s right, you know.

Stopping bullies and making kids feel safe at school is not a check box that we can say we’ve addressed once, or 10 times, or 100 times and feel like it’s been handled. I think what he meant is that bullying needs to be nipped in the bud each and every time a child is bullied. Kids need to feel the consequences the first time, and every time, they fail to respect fellow students and teachers .

But schools cannot accomplish this discipline alone. And police don’t get involved until things have gone off the rails.

Parents are the first line of defense. Parents raise bullies and send them to school. Parents raise spoiled, entitled kids. Parents raise kids who don’t think the rules apply to them. Parents also raise kids who have been abused, neglected and traumatized, and those kids can turn their bottled-up anger and hurt against others.

Ocean Breeze now has uniformed officers and locked gates. State law makes this the standard. Hundreds of millions of your tax dollars will pay for security measures. But it’s what goes on within the gates, in the classrooms and on the playground that will determine whether Ocean Breeze heals. It’s also what goes outside those gates in homes and at dinner tables.

Hollyfield’s message hit the mark. It’s a great start, but it needs to be driven home every day.

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