At 5-foot, 8-inches tall, 13-year-old Hailey Wilkerson isn’t the average eighth-grader. She’s young for her grade. She’s biracial. And she always has been a little overweight and admittedly “odd.”
In first grade, kids told her she was adopted. In sixth grade, they teased after her parents divorced. In seventh grade, her best friends told her to straighten her hair, take off the glasses, wear skinny jeans and lose the flashy eye shadow.
Wilkerson, a drama student at Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts in Akron, joins 50 of her classmates for The Bully Project,” a series of 10-minute plays about bullying.
Watching the final rehearsal Wednesday night before the show’s three-day run, Hailey thinks about each scene.
“That’s my entire middle-school experience,” she said.
The play’s run began Thursday evening with a public performance. It continues with a school showing this morning and concludes with another public viewing at 7 p.m. Saturday at the school on East Avenue.
While the production depicts fictional settings like Facespace, a cyber world where students mimic instant messages and spread nasty rumors, the reality of bullying is common to hallways, lunchrooms, playgrounds and cell phones.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 28 percent of students ages 12 through 18 were bullied in 2009. Wendy Duke, a drama teacher at Miller South and the play’s co-director, can relate. When she was a student at Sharon Elementary in Medina County some 50 years ago, her classmates called her “fatty,” “piggy,” “tubby” and “lard.”
But there was no emphasis on bullying then, Duke said.
“Everybody looked the other way.”
Times have changed.
After an Ohio teenager committed suicide four years ago following leaked nude photos, state law has mandated schools to implement policies and procedures on reporting and counseling victims and perpetrators of bullying.
The Ohio Legislature passed the Jessica Logan Act, also known as the Anti-Bullying Act, early this year to shield students and others from written, verbal, physical and electronic harassment.
The latter form pervades society.
In 2010, the Cyberbullying Research Center surveyed 4,441 teenagers. It found 16.6 percent of males and 25.1 percent of females said they had experienced cyberbullying. And 83 percent of all respondents used cell phones.
“I think [cyberbullying] is a trend that has been going on since instant messaging,” said Christine Suniti Bhat, assistant professor of counselor education at Ohio University and president of the Ohio Counseling Association. “It’s definitely shifting the paradigm.”
Bhat said that while victims once shut off a computer to avoid harassment, technology has become inescapable. Schools are “all scrambling to figure out how to address this behavior,” she said.
Duke can only correct the behavior she sees. Often, it’s the response to bullying and not the initial act that is noticed.
“Bullies are very smart,” Duke said.
Bhat said the onus of educating the public and the students has fallen on the schools, but parents and even technology providers play a major role in enabling online bullying. She suggests that preaching doesn’t work.
If peers can communicate the dangers of bullying, then the message carries more weight. That’s the major idea behind The Bully Project.
Students are educating students, as well as the community, about something most have experienced.
For some of the performers, the stage is a place to escape.
“It’s a way for me to really express myself,” said John Lynch, a sixth-grader.
Bullying has left John in tears. He’s sometimes afraid to say something if he witnesses it; he doesn’t want to be called a snitch.
Hailey used to be the same way. Not anymore.
“I was picked on for being younger, overweight, being biracial,” she said. “I’m not proud to have gone through it, but it’s definitely made me a stronger person.”
General admission tickets for Saturday’s performance are $7 for adults and $5 for students and senior citizens. Reserved orchestra seating is $10. Call 330-761-3106.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.