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a pilot special report: Taking a stand against bullying

Friday, November 30, 2012

Even the most powerful person in the state is powerless to give someone like Kenneth another day.

All that can be done is talking an issue out of the shadows, in hopes the words will somehow prevent what happened to Kenneth from claiming another child.

More than 1,100 Iowans gathered Tuesday for the Governor's Bullying Prevention Summit - a first for the state. Among those taking part was Jeff Tollefson, representing Storm Lake High School. Leaders from across the state are trying to make a stand against harassment and violence.

For northwest Iowa participants, Kenneth Weishuhn of Primgahr may be the face for an issue that has become a hot-button epidemic. After 14-year-old Kenneth came out as being gay, he was harassed, bullied and threatened, to the point where he finally took his own life in April. Such stories inspired the new summit, themed, "Together, Let's Make a Stand."

For many, it comes too late. "My family is now defined by bullying," one parent says. "It forces your child to grow up faster and there is an actual loss of just being a child. My child will forever be known as a 'victim.' We will survive but we are forever changed."

One adult said the discussion has brought up difficult memories of "four-plus years of torture" culminating in an incident of humiliation at high school graduation too scarring to ever allow attendance at a reunion. "What happened in my high school years has forever shaped me into the person I am today. In my heart, I feel that the children of today need to know what the long-term effects of bullying can be. The suicides nationwide are certainly horrific, but the ones who lived through it and suffer every day because of it have lessons to teach as well."

A 15-year-old girl wrote a song about the bullying she experienced, which she is sending to the governor. "I was not going to let them break me, Because in the end bullying is really about power," she says. "Why give anyone that satisfaction over you! I didn't, I won't, and I hope more kids don't, either."

How pervasive is the problem? The most recent Iowa Youth Survey that involves students in grades 6, 8 and 11, found half of all children reporting that they have been bullied while at school.

"It's clear that it's time to have this conversation," Governor Terry Branstad says.

"It was excellent to see everyone coming together on this issue," Storm Lake High School's Tollefson said after the summit. "I hope the state continued to do this, and next time we can look at taking students."

During the event, those gathered watched videos produced by high school students on bullying. It is an appropriate media for the subject. The documentary movie "Bully," filmed within the Sioux City schools, focused national attention on northwest Iowa and the ugly reality of bullying that students endure. Summit speakers further explored the sometimes hurtful world of young Iowans in sessions with names like "The Culture of Mean," and "Queen Bees and Wannabes."

Sadly, nothing he saw at the summit came as a surprise to the Storm Lake High School veteran.

"Everything they talked about, we've seen here," Tollefson said. "The examples of abusive text messages they showed - there wasn't a thing there that we haven't experienced. Unfortunately, it's everywhere."

One aspect of the summit that touched the local educator was a panel discussion with the author of the book, "The Bully and the Bystander."

"We have to get to the point where we have an understanding of what is acceptable in society and what isn't. As the superintendent from Sioux City commented, 'We need to move from being bystanders to upstanders.' We may not be the bullies ourselves, but when we hear and see it and don't do anything about it, we're part of the problem," Tollefson said.

Also this week, two counselors from SLHS are attending a similar conference in Omaha, "Mean Girls," taking its name from the popular movie about bullying and discriminatory teens. Afterward, administrators plan to meet with the counseling staff and brainstorm ideas to get the information into the hands of the students - and their teachers.

"It's important to remember that adults use bullying behavior at times too. Young people grow up seeing what the adults around them do, and unfortunately, they often model behavior they have been exposed to, the bad as well as the good," Tollefson said.

Storm Lake High School Principal Beau Ruleaux said that bullying is an issue the Storm Lake schools have taken seriously long before state leaders planned the summit.

"I feel it's been a long time coming," he said. "Bullying has been around for as long as schools have been around, but it is high time this gets the attention is deserves and some preventative measures."

The school has done educational programs, brought in speakers, done small group and one-on-one programs and held assemblies to try to build awareness of what bullying can do to a person or a family, but bullying still happens in and out of the school, he admitted.

"Can we ever eliminate it? I sure hope so. I can tell you that every case that gets brought to the office's attention is taken very seriously," Ruleaux said. "The kids have seen it in the news, they know as well as we do that it's the hot topic issue."

There has always been an unspoken stigma among students against "tattling," but the SLHS principal said he is encouraged to see local teens begin to take the issue into their own hands. "When one student is getting mistreated, we now have others coming in and bringing it to our attention and saying, 'This isn't right.'"

Social networking has changed the landscape of bullying. While it may not be physical - cyberbullying is nearly inescapable.

"To be honest, that where a lot of our issues come from. A student comes in really hurt and upset about messages being sent to them or things being posted about them over the various social networks. It can be very cruel. It may not happen in the school, but it follows them to school, and can interfere with their school work, so it is as much an issue that impacts the school as if a student were being shoved around in our hallways," Ruleaux said.

Gov. Branstad says it is too easy to point to technology as the culprit. "Cell phones, tablets and computers have made cyberbullying possible, but they are not to blame," he said. "The culture around us too often fosters a disregard for others that is unhealthy - and sometimes dangerous. "Incivility has all too common in the workplace, in politics and on the road, as well as social media."

One Storm Lake student says that virtually everyone she knows has been a victim of cyber-bullying.

"If someone hates you, they don't have to fight you. They go on Facebook and put up something terrible about you - it doesn't matter if it is a lie, once it's there it never goes away, and the whole school is talking about you. I think it can be worse than getting cut with a knife, because it's a kind of pain that doesn't heal."

In school or online, bullies are no longer tolerated as a rite of passage. In an extreme/repeated case, a student bullying others in Storm Lake schools could be subject to an expulsion hearing.

"The first thing we say - report it. I can't tell you how frustrating it is for school officials when there is a problem that could have been stopped, but we don't hear about it until it has gone to the point where it is a crisis almost beyond repair," principal Ruleaux says. "We may have parents come to us with, 'This has been going on for two months, what are you going to do about it?' Well Christ, two months? Why haven't we heard about it?'

"If you are being bullied, tell someone - your parents, your teachers - we have counselors for these situations. If you are a parent and your child is being bullied, feel free to contact school officials about it - communication is a two way street," Ruleaux said.

The family of Kenneth Weishuhn said the 14-year-old pleaded with them not to go to school administration with their concerns. School officials didn't know about the barrage of hate directed at the teenager until after he had killed himself, they say. Kenneth's 16-year-old sister, Kayla, said one student called her brother and left him death threats, saying that he didn't deserve to live. He had been a popular, happy, outgoing student until word of his homosexuality got out, and even people Kenneth considered his friends began to turn on him. She said once the teasing started in school, other students were divided. Either they joined in or became too scared to say anything. Threatening messages were posted online or left as voicemails.

A 5K walk was held to show support for Kenneth's family and friends later in the year. "For the other people who are getting bullied, you know, and not just in South O'Brien, not just in northwest Iowa, across the nation, we need to raise awareness, and something needs to be done," said Misty Vitrano, Kenneth's aunt.

Governor Terry Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds are among those struggling for answers. Along with the summit they held a Governor's Bullying Prevention video contest, with Hartley-Melvin-Sanborn Community School District winning after receiving nearly 37,000 views for their project. Change at the Anamosa State Penitentiary group raised money toward prizes.

The bullying summit also served as a platform to launch a new "go-to resource" where youth, parents, school personnel and all concerned Iowans can get help and information about bullying and youth suicide. Your Life Iowa is a new 24/7 service by phone, text or web - www.Yourlifeiowa.org or 855-581-8111, says Pam Bogue, Buena Vista County Public Health. "Trained counselors will provide guidance and support about bullying, and critical help to youth who feel they've run out of options and are considering suicide."

"This hotline is another step toward building a healthier Iowa for our young people, but we are a long way from where we need to be," said Iowa Department of Public Health Director, Dr. Mariannette Miller-Meeks. "It will take sensitivity and awareness by all Iowans to end bullying and to provide the encouragement and support young people need to see beyond the immediate and tragically irreversible action of suicide."

Your Life Iowa is funded by the Iowa Department of Public Health in partnership with Boys Town, the State of Iowa Youth Advisory Committee, and the Iowa Department of Education Bullying Prevention, Intervention and Reporting Initiative.

Gov. Branstad left the summit feeling that an important step had been taken,

"I think the Governor's Bullying Prevention Summit was a wonderful learning experience and exchange on ideas and strategies of preventing bullying and the challenges we need to overcome. We need to have not just the schools but also the parents and the community actively involved also. The summit has exceeded my expectations," he says.

A Storm Lake teenager says it is far from enough.

"It's a nice idea. But just going to a conference or watching videos isn't going to make kids any safer. Something needs to be done to stop these people before another kid ends up dead."

* ON THE WEB: The videos produced for the governor's anti-bullying contesy can be found on the EduVision Bully Prevention Channel: https://educateiowa.eduvision.tv/Default....

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