By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Last week, about 90 Whiteaker Middle School students gathered in the school’s courtyard area sporting anti-bullying T-shirts they’d made as part of a week-long effort to curb bullying in the school. But the project didn’t start there.
It started much, much smaller. That story is a testament to the power of three eighth graders who decided they wanted to make a difference in their school community.
“We were doing a unit on bullying in health class and learned about Megan Meier a girl who got bullied so bad she wanted to kill herself and she did,” said Kiana Briones, who helped kickstart the effort with Justin Sullivan and Kailey Fritts.
Meier was a Missouri middle school student whose 2006 suicide was attributed to being a victim of cyberbullying.
“I know that bullying isn’t right, I’ve been bullied and I’ve been a bully. I have been bullied over the internet and I felt like it was right to tell people that they shouldn’t be doing it,” Justin said.
Kiana, too, found herself the victim of bullying as a seventh grader.
“I spent a lot of time wondering why people who were my friends were saying the things they were saying. It was a tough year and it took me a long time to heal the wound,” she said. Kiana was also a former schoolmate of a student at Whiteaker who took his own life two years ago, an act that was likely, in part, a response to being bullied.
As part of the learning unit, the trio had to create a picture book for younger children with a positive message and Kiana, Justin and Kailey chose bullying as their topic. A week later, teacher Jacque Walker, told them it was time to take their message to the other Wolverine students.
They visited classrooms to talk about their experiences, covered the hallways in posters, and a throng of students made personalized T-shirts with anti-bullying messages.
Justin pulled from his experiences on both sides of the equation when talking to other students, “I don’t want other people to feel the way I’ve felt and I’m trying much harder not to be a bully. I try to think more about what I’m going to say. Now I’m processing what I’m going to say and whether it’s right or not.”
Kiana added, “I wanted them to know they’re not alone. You have to have tough skin and know who you are and not let anybody tell you differently.”
They discovered quickly that their message was being heard.
“People were walking up to me – people I didn’t even know – were walking up to me and saying we were doing a good job. That has helped me. It just shocked me. The tiny message we were giving them was making a huge difference,” Justin said.
The message Kiana and Justin said seemed to connect was one of putting yourself in other people’s shoes and remembering that words can be extremely harmful.
“People may say that they don’t care whether people kill themselves over bullying, but deep down, they do,” Justin said.
Their biggest hope is that the message doesn’t fade outside Whiteaker’s hallowed halls.
“I would like sometime in the future for everyone to not be bullying each other. If that happens, we’ll have kids here at our school going to other schools and telling them not to bully and then their schools stop and then across the nation,” Justin said.
“And then there’s not bullying anywhere,” added Kiana.