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Autumn Woolhouse sat forlornly at a booth for the National Bullying Prevention Center at a coffee shop in Chaska. She had just signed the center's petition to stop bullying -- a subject she knows too well.
At her Chaska middle school, Woolhouse has been pushed off her lunch-room chair by students who won't sit by her. On the school bus, she's been tripped, hit and pelted with a water bottle. That's not to mention the taunting.
Listening to her story last weekend was a teen volunteer for the bullying prevention center.
"I'll definitely watch out for her Monday ... and through the rest of the school year," said Jonna Herbstritt, 13, who attends Woolhouse's school.
The somber scene offers a glimpse into the work of the National Bullying Prevention Center, based in Bloomington, which has found itself a major player in a soaring national problem. While such teen volunteers as Herbstritt help at public events for students, its leaders have caught the attention of the White House and policymakers in Washington, D.C., where they shared their expertise last week.
The center also has worked with CNN, People Magazine, the Ellen DeGeneres Show and a New York Times bullying forum --to name a few.
"People contact us from around the country, around the world," said executive director Julie Hertzog, whose office walls are covered with drawings, poems and stories sent in by bullied students.
The center is part of PACER, a Minnesota nonprofit that works with people with disabilities. Its leaders weren't surprised by the recent Minnesota Student Survey showing that 57 percent of students were bullied or bullied someone in the past month. That included more than 110,000 students bullied at least weekly.
Every day Hertzog hears their stories.
"Today I received a phone call from a parent whose son committed suicide a year ago asking, 'What can I do to help my community?'" she said. "There was a Facebook post [on the center's website] from a mom saying, 'I'm going to talk to my son's principal today. It's heart-wrenching when a child would rather die than face another day at school.'"
"It's an emerging issue that is very pervasive -- unfortunately," said PACER executive director Paula Goldberg, who brought that message to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights earlier this month and to a White House Conference on Bullying Prevention in March.
Woolhouse, her mom and sister showed up at a "Stand up to Bullying" event the Chaska Police Department held at the local Dunn Bros a week ago.
The slight, blonde eighth-grader said the bullying started in grade school with name calling but escalated last year. On the bus, she said, she was hit on the head, called names and harassed about her mother's appearance. After her mother asked the bus company to videotape the ride, the main perpetrator was removed and the harassment subsided.
But it's picked up again.
"It's gotten to the point where she's sick to her stomach," said her mother, Tammy Woolhouse. "And then I get letters from school saying she's missing too much school and it's academic neglect. It's frustrating."
Ryan Rendall, a sophomore at Chaska High School, also stopped by the bullying center table. He just created an organization called "This is me. Now go be you," with a goal of informing every freshman about bullying.
Rendell said he was bullied most of his life, including physical violence in middle school.
"A group of guys came and slammed me against the shelf in my locker," said Rendell, "I looked around ... and people just walked past."
"This is a major problem, and someone has to do something," he said.
Children with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, who are gay, lesbian, overweight, super-skinny, or "simply perceived as different" are often targets, Goldberg said. In her testimony before the Civil Rights Commission last week, Goldberg shared the story of a 12-year-old girl with epilepsy in outstate Minnesota. When the girl used the restroom in her middle school, other girls would writhe on the floor, mocking seizures.
A national movement stirs
Minnesota is among 46 states with anti-bullying laws, but Minnesota's is weak, said Goldberg. The state doesn't require schools to document and report cases of bullying, she said.
The center backed a bill in the Legislature this year that would have required school districts to collect bullying data, provide more staff training and other provisions. It never got off the ground, she said.
The center, launched in 2005, has been laying the groundwork for a national bullying movement. It launched "National Bullying Prevention Week" in 2006, which became "month" last year, and joined forces with such partners as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
"It caught on like fire," said Goldberg.
Last year it launched a "Run Walk Roll Against Bullying" fundraiser, an idea already replicated in Kentucky, Oregon, New York and beyond.
To directly help students, the center offers interactive websites for students and information for parents and educators (www.pacer.org/bullying). It had more than 800,000 visitors last year, a figure that could double in 2011, said Hertzog.
The center, it seems, has tapped a nerve. Said Goldberg: "We're beginning. But it takes a whole community to make society change."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511