Words of education and protest shine a light on bullying

Published: Wednesday, May 2 2012 8:19 p.m. MDT

Whitnie Wendel looks over at her brother Jared Wendel as they join community members May 1, 2012 at the Ogden Amphitheater to speak out against bullying in an event organized by OUTreach.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Check out the Deseret News Classroom Connections special insert on bullying.

SALT LAKE CITY — At schools and in the streets, attention this week is being thrust on the problem of bullying, attracting the attention of politicians, filmmakers and community organizers.

Tuesday in Ogden a candlelight vigil was held to call out bullying and its sometimes tragic consequence, suicide.

Wednesday the national conversation on bullying landed in Salt Lake City with the arrival of documentary filmmaker Lee Hirsch, whose film "Bully" depicts the plight of those who become the targets of bullying.

And Friday Utah schools will be a part of Stand4Change Against Bullying Day, at the encouragement of Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff who videotaped an anti-bullying message at Woodstock Elementary in Murray last week.

"If the climate says that you're going to advance socially by being cruel, then that's how a lot of kids are going to operate," said Hirsch, who presented his film  to students at Rowland Hall Tuesday. The film follows the lives of families affected by bullying in often harsh exchanges between students.

Hirsch said the topic of bullying is personal to him, informed by his own childhood experiences. As a student, Hirsch said he couldn't make it home from school each day without being physically attacked. He said he hopes families will watch "Bully" together and have a conversation they otherwise wouldn't have had.

But he also told students at Rowland Hall, a private middle and high school, that talking about the problem isn't enough. What matters is the way they treat each other and intervening when they see people being attacked.

"The notion of us gathering for an assembly and thinking we can change things is ridiculous," Hirsch said. "The work is ongoing."

Hirsch related some of his experiences making the film, including the frustration he felt as he watched parents and school administrators turn a blind eye to what was happening between children.

"A lot of the families actually didn't know their kids were involved in that behavior because the school never contacted them," he said, noting that too often adults take a "kids will be kids" attitude toward bullying. He said while students are punished for stealing or cheating, bullying is often ignored.

In Hirsch's film, two stories of children who took their own lives as a result of bullying are shown. That dark reality of the dangers of bullying was a focal point of a candlelight vigil held Monday in Ogden that emphasized the need for tolerance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

The event, organized by OUTreach, attracted about 250 people to the Ogden amphitheater and included a number of speakers who addressed bullying and suicide and culminated in a vigil and prayer led by leaders of several religious denominations.

Allison Black, president of the Ogden chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), told the story of her son Josh, who had been called derogatory terms in second grade while the family lived in Montana and began being bullied at an elementary school within one week of their moving to Eden, Utah.

"Josh made it through high school and college, but he did not have a happy childhood," Black said. "I am the parent of a wonderful gay son. I can't imagine not supporting him."

Marian Edmonds, executive director of OUTreach, said people need to speak out against bullying and derogatory uses of the word "gay." She said "so much of what is causing the hate and homophobia and bullying is fear."

On Friday, participating students and teachers in Utah will join hundreds of thousands across the nation in showing their commitment against bullying by stopping what they're doing, standing at their desks and complimenting those around them. Shurtleff said that bullying has been a problem forever and has only worsened in the internet age, with social media websites allowing children to be targeted even while at home. 

"These kids know bullying," Shurtleff said. "They've seen it, they've experienced it themselves and, frankly, some of them are bullies."

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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