Group aims to curb bullying

From left Crystal Shepherd, Shari Hicks and Christina Johnson gather for a Sunday lunch and to talk about a new support group they have started for South Middle School called Friends Don't Let Friends Bully. The group has already had one fundraiser and has plans for another one soon.

Nationwide, people are addressing bullying, seeking to stop it. A new organization in Lawrence is taking up the cause.

Crystal Shepherd, of Lawrence, has created an anti-bullying group called Friends Don’t Let Friends Bully. The organization will launch this fall at South Middle School. Shepherd hopes to galvanize students, parents, teachers and community members in the anti-bully movement.

“The idea is that it’s a community effort, that bullying is not in the dark anymore,” said Shepherd, the group’s organizer. “Instead of a program focused on protecting the victim, (Friends Don’t Let Friends Bully) is designed to draw the bullies out. … Maybe they don’t even realize what they are doing is bullying and the ones who do realize they are bullying aren’t in the dark anymore; they need to be held accountable for their own actions within themselves, including by the people around them.”

One of the missions of Friends Don’t Let Friends Bully is to rebrand the image of the bully: It’s not cool to be a bully. The group is planning dog walks, love runs and pep rallies to spread the message.

Part of the message is intended for people around bullies, Shepherd said. If Friends Don’t Let Friends Bully can reach children at vulnerable ages, making them confident enough to speak out when they see friends pick on others, they can deter the bully from acting out.

“Your friend wouldn’t let you wear blue eyeliner with that shirt,” Shepherd said. “Your friend shouldn’t let you bully.”

Bullies tend to pick on others when their behavior is accepted, approved or even applauded. Shepherd wants schools to become safe places for students, places bullies do not feel lauded when acting out.

Personal resonance

The anti-bullying movement has deep resonance with Shepherd. Her son, Nathan, 13, has been bothered by bullies since second grade. Nathan was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 9. She said kids would tease him because he behaved differently than they did. Over time, the bullying grew brutal and relentless; she said Nathan would come home with welts from being hit in the face with the ball during foursquare; he would drag himself home in low spirits.

The consistency of bullying pulled Shepherd into the classroom time and time again to defend her son. Once, she compiled a PowerPoint on Nathan and Asperger’s syndrome designed to educate and explain why Nathan was a little different. The presentation proved successful at first: The bullying abated for a month. But then it picked up again.

Finally Shepherd saw bullies penetrate her son’s favorite place at school: choir. Though Nathan struggled academically, he thrived in choir. But when the bullying started there, choir was no longer a refuge.

“I thought choir was the one place he was safe, and now he’s not,” Shepherd said. “I decided I can’t keep saying something to the teacher. I really need to get in there and do something about this.”

At first Shepherd thought of forming an autism awareness program. Then she realized that autism wasn’t the problem and that being attacked and persecuted for being different was. So she sought to form Friends Don’t Let Friends Bully to address bullying as a social problem.

Support

Shepherd has recruited teenagers Austin Brown, 17, and J.T. Sczbaznic, 17, to help get the group started. For the group’s first fundraiser, an Anti-Bully Love Run that drew in 75 people, the teens distributed fliers, hung Christmas lights and doled out water to the runners.

Though the teens said they were never extremely bullied, they have been teased before for their clothing.

“Anything that keeps you out of the main group is easy targeting for a bully,” Austin said. “If you let what people say get to you, and you change to be like them, they’ll make fun of you for that too. … We hope that through our program, parents will start to realize if their child is a bully or they are being bullied and take action and do whatever they can to keep it from happening.”

It is only the group’s first year, but it would like to expand in Lawrence.

“We would like to get other schools involved and make it a citywide awareness program that’s started at all the schools because bullying happens from elementary all the way to high school — or beyond even,” said committee member Sherri Hicks. “Bullying can even happen in an environment for adults.”

As Shepherd tries to redefine the image of the bully locally and beyond, she is in need of volunteers — parents, students, community members — to help boost the anti-bully cause and get her message out.

Positive message

Most importantly, Shepherd hopes to reach bullies.

“Let’s help these bullies too,” Shepherd said. “Hug them, hug the bully. Let’s make them understand what compassion feels like. This isn’t going to reach everyone. (Some of them) are too far in their frame of mind to accept the change, but at the same time I really feel like with community awareness, it’s not going to be overlooked anymore.”