A new film and book tell stories of young people who have felt the pain and sadness of being tormented by their peers.
It may be during the morning bus ride or in the school cafeteria. Could be on the playground or in the hallways. Harassment can take place anywhere for students. Since 2006, the Bloomington-based PACER Center has sponsored National Bullying Prevention Month in October to raise awareness about bullying and to help encourage kids and adults to take action against it. This year's theme is "The End of Bullying Begins With Me." Local filmmaker Alec Fischer, a 2012 graduate of Edina High School, and Tristan Chermack, author and self-defense teacher from Crystal, are committed to spreading the anti-bullying message in different yet provocative ways.Minnesota Nice?
Fischer recalls his own experience in middle school, when he was often victimized by bullies but reluctant to speak up, even to his parents. He later witnessed the devastating effect of harassment on several high school friends who routinely sought him out, looking for solace and support as they struggled under the weight of being powerless.
Fischer wondered how he could help other kids who were being victimized by bullying. The result was a 45-minute film titled "Minnesota Nice? A Documentary on Bullying in Minnesota Public Schools," which Fischer, 18, produced last year in the weeks before he graduated from Edina High School.
He noted in jest that he made the film on "a budget of zero dollars," as he traveled around the state on his own, meeting with students -- many of whom he found via Facebook -- and filming them as they told their stories.
His work can be seen on a YouTube trailer (the full-length film is to be released on YouTube in November). "I wanted it to be their stories, not a film about adults telling kids how to feel about being bullied," Fischer said. "I figured that would be a more effective way for kids, as well as adults, to connect with the students in the film."
Janet Schank, chemical/mental health coordinator at Edina High School, served as Fischer's mentor for the project. She recalled the film's first screening at the end of the past school year. "The entire auditorium was filled with students and you could literally have heard a pin drop in the theater," Schank said. "When it was over, the students gave Alec a standing ovation."
Fischer started his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee this fall, where he is majoring in film and sociology. He has participated in several screenings at schools statewide, and says he has been humbled by students' reactions to the film.
Kris Shelley, a licensed parent educator in the Edina school district, will moderate an upcoming panel discussion of the movie with Fischer. She offers monthly meetings for parents of middle-schoolers and high-schoolers. Social issues such as bullying remain at the top of the list of parental concerns.
"The thought of their child being hurt or excluded by peers is always very upsetting to parents," Shelley said. "It gives them a feeling of powerlessness. We talk to parents about the importance of being accessible, but not overly emotional, when it comes to talking with their kids about a bullying situation. Be a good listener."
The film is "hard to watch and very emotional, but so important," she said.Building confidence and coordination
When Tristan Chermack wrote "What the Bully Doesn't Want You to Know: A Streetwise Guide to Your Bully Problem," he interviewed several middle- and high-school students -- all of whom had been bullied -- and asked them to share their personal stories. One of Chermack's favorites came from a young boy who talked about an incident in the school cafeteria.
"This boy saw three kids eyeing him up from across the room. He could tell they were looking for someone to pick on and knew it was going to be him," said Chermack, who teaches self-defense to children and adults at Spirit Aikido in Eden Prairie. "He still doesn't know where he got the courage to do it, but he walked up to the boys -- all bigger than he was -- and showed them his fist with a cut on his hand, telling them he got that from the last time someone tried to push him around."
It was a total bluff -- the cut was from woodworking class -- but the kids turned away and never bothered him again. Chermack said the student told him he had no intention of getting into a fight, but just wanted to be the one in control of the situation.
Chermack, now 44, was the victim of bullies himself as a young boy growing up in Minnetonka. He believes the key for kids who feel threatened by others is to be confident and not succumb to fear. Parents are the ones who can best prepare their child to avoid situations that put them in harm's way, he said.
"The mentorship of a parent, or even an older sibling, can be very important, but they need to communicate with the child on his level in the situation," Chermack said. "Sometimes, a parent's first response is to solve the problem in an adult way -- they go right to a teacher. But the kid is the one who has to be in school every day and needs the tools to figure out how to start solving the problem now."
This might be especially important for girls, who deal more in the social sphere of bullying. "Once girls have started a campaign against someone, it can be hard to stop," he said. "This is why kids need to reach out to their parents right away and talk about the situation."
Although Chermack teaches self-defense, he emphasizes the goal of avoiding violence and focuses on helping his students build coordination and confidence, working on eye contact and relying on the power of instinct to keep them out of potentially harmful situations.
Parents should encourage their kids to become involved with teams or other activities where they will build confidence and be surrounded by other kids with similar interests, he said.
"A child who is always alone at school can, unfortunately, be an easy target for a bully," Chermack said. "Being connected with others makes a big difference."
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.