Crossing the line from victim to bully

Area middle school students participate in ‘next generation’ bullying program

Loren Lapow, founding director of the hero project, guides 170 Ignacio junior high students through “Epic Day,” the cathartic, emotional, demanding and innovative inaugural event of the hero project’s ground-breaking anti-bullying program. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Loren Lapow

Loren Lapow, founding director of the hero project, guides 170 Ignacio junior high students through “Epic Day,” the cathartic, emotional, demanding and innovative inaugural event of the hero project’s ground-breaking anti-bullying program.

Adults have long treated bullying as a fact of adolescent life: louts steal lunch money, jocks administer swirlies, homecoming kings spurn their gullible, homely dates, kids will be kids, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Throughout the year, teens’ suicides have underscored the inadequacy of these traditional bromides.

Even the perception of bullying as being confined to the lunchroom or the locker room is woefully outdated. Just last week, 15-year-old Amanda Todd from Canada committed suicide after months of unrelenting online sexual harassment.

Chris Decay, principal of Ignacio Junior High School, said, “Bullying exists everywhere, it’s a part of society. But so many people have a misperception of what it is. We don’t see a lot of stealing lunch money. It’s not a one-time incident. And there’s no doubt about it – the Internet has allowed kids to take it to a new level with texting and Facebook, it takes place outside school, at home.”

While bullying is not a big problem in Ignacio schools, officials say it is a concern. Which is why they welcomed Epic Day, brought to 170 middle school students by Southern Ute Community Action Program and Kelly Rogers and Lightning Communications, which donated a full sound and light show worth about $10,000.

Epic Day is part of an innovative program called the Hero Project, which uses mythology, games, mentors, small-group confessionals and a “time machine” to combat bullying, suicide and drug abuse.

If these terms sound buzzy and evasive, according to educators, Epic Day’s success was resoundingly concrete.

Zach Bertrand, program coordinator for SUCAP’s youth services, said, “I want to say things like ‘Oh, we made em cry, we brought up those emotions,’ – but that doesn’t sound right.”

Escalante Middle School’s counselor Chad Novak said, “Kids come in at the beginning with a chip on their shoulder, and by the end, they’re giving face-to-face apologies with microphones in front of 150 students, crying with joy and relief, hugging each other. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

Ignacio Junior High School counselor Dayna Talamonte-Montoya said, “Overwhelmingly, most kids said it was the best day of their lives.”

Brave new world

Talamonte-Montoya said adults barely comprehend the turmoil of adolescence. “I think we tend to just think, ‘Kids are going to school. They don’t have jobs, or children, or things that we have to worry about, so why should they be stressed?’ Adults don’t see the pressure kids are really under.”

The Hawaii-based Hero Project, conversely, is based on the “belief that kids are in overwhelming pain – video games are a distraction – that’s why kids are taking out their crap on each other,” said Loren Lapow, the program’s founding director. The project is designed to show kids that there are “ways to feel better without turning to drugs and alcohol. But you have to be competitive and offer them programming that’s cool, new. Most old school activities, such as the Boys & Girls clubs, don’t buzz as much as kids do today; whereas, the Hero Project is a next generation prevention program,” he said.

The Hero Project model, which has been nominated by the Hawaii Department of Health as a national best practice, has been used in Maui for more than a decade, and was replicated by the Navajo Nation last year.

From Epic Day, 10 to 15 students begin an “8-week, adventure, rites-of-passage cycle.” Ignacio students who undergo that training are slated to run Epic Day at Escalante in January.

Briana Sandhaus, a senior at Big Picture High School who brought 14 mentors to Ignacio’s Epic Day on her own initiative, said, “At first, I didn’t think it was going to work. People were standing in their cliques, clearly judging each other. But as we progressed with the games, people started letting their walls down. The piece that really brought it together was ‘cross the line.’”

Lapow said “cross the line,” or the “shuffle walk,” was a powerful exercise because, “bullies invariably cross more than anybody. That shifts everyone’s perception. As a group, we all reveal publicly what we’ve privately been going through, and that creates a shift in compassion. It was very tearful, very cathartic. We use that release of emotion, and change the onus to helping other people: You can either be a victim or a hero, it’s not your fault that this happened to you, but it is your responsibility to extend yourself, reach out, and help other people with what they’re going through.”

Cross the line

The participating students stood across from a parallel line, 10 feet away.

Lapow began, “Please cross the line if you’re under age 18.”

Every student ran the 10 feet.

“So how does it feel being in a group of lesser privilege, lesser power, because you’re younger? If you’re hit by your parents, and it doesn’t leave a mark, that’s legal because you’re under 18, but that would be a crime if you were an adult,” said Loren.

Lapow’s edicts continued. “Please cross the line if you’ve lost someone. If you’ve been hurt at home. If you’re from a single-parent family. If you’ve been made fun of for the way you walk, talk, look. Because you’re a boy. Because you’re a girl. Please cross the line if you’ve ever thought about suicide.”

The kids kept running across the line, even through tears.

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