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Acting it out: Creating a kinder culture among teens

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 9, 2011 - Throughout April, students across the St. Louis region met an anxiety-ridden, strapped for cash version of William Shakespeare, wearing yet another costume: conflict mediator.

In "Cruel to Be Kind?" a 50-minute play written for the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival's school tour, this Shakespeare muses on how to help his teenage protegee Orlandin deal with the "brute" in question -- an aggressive older apprentice named Ozwaldo. Education director Chris Limber says Ozwaldo commits "crimes" that should resonate with youth: He humiliates Orlandin in front of his crush. He picks on him at play rehearsal. He sets him up to get in trouble, catalyzing a network of henchmen, supporters and passive onlookers.

Ozwaldo is, of course, a bully -- and the Hazelwood school district hopes his example will guide their students through a conversation about bullying. The entire freshmen class saw the performance this year, and after the show, actors led small groups of students in workshops, encouraging them to talk about the behaviors they recognize in their own lives.

"My feeling is, what I saw in those workshops - if that attitude that understanding and awareness -- it would stop all kinds of bullying, it wouldn't just relate to the cyber bullying," said Hazelwood's communications skills coordinator Joanne DuMont.

Even those who support stronger state legislation have their reservations about its efficacy. In internet safety workshops across the state, Lt. Joe Laramie of the attorney general's office says, if there is one take-away lesson, it is that cyberbullying will not end if it is treated as a fault of the technology alone. The culture also has to change, and that cultural shift demands an active role for youth themselves.

"If there are a bunch of kids who don't think it's a big deal, all the parents and all the educators in the world aren't going to make it stop," Laramie said. "But if we get kids who say, 'We find a problem with it, this is a bad use of technology, this isn't the kind of people we are,' it's almost like majority rules. Then the culture is, 'this is wrong,' and it becomes less frequent," Laramie said.

The differences between a scene set in 1599 and 2011 are, of course, in the technology. But they are also in the cultural conversations about bullying, how we attribute blame, and to whom we assign the responsibility of protection. Morgan Keenan, for example, works with the Safe Schools Anti-Bullying video project, collecting stories from bullied students to post on the internet.

"We don't all need to be in the know, but if we're going to ask [youth] to engage, we've got to ask them about the best way to engage. We've got to read their blogs and find them on Facebook and befriend them," Keenan said.

For Ladue Middle School students Alyson Yawpiz and Lilly Geisler, engagement came through their own research. The pair has teamed up to write, film and present a piece on the Megan Meier story to air on their school's news.

"Now, I'm really like, 'Oh, do I want everyone seeing this? Am I OK with a college professor seeing what I just posted?' Of course that's far off in the future, but of course that's still just there," said 13-year-old Yawpiz.

After a month's worth of anti-bullying programming at their school, the girls decided to focus their video journalism class project on cyberbullying. At a suggestion from their teacher, they interviewed Tina Meier and repackaged it for the educational website SchoolTube.com.

Their project strikes at another important characteristic of what Laramie calls "proactive" anti-bullying efforts: It comes through peers, rather than authority.

"You've really got to think what you say before you do anything. That's really become my motto since this whole thing happened. I feel like I knew Megan. She's taught me a lot," Geisler said.

Encouraging students to take broader action against bullying also can enhance their own recovery. Sidney Wilhelm, a Webster Groves student who has spoken out against the bullying she experienced, has presented her story to the Avery elementary school parent teacher organization, and created a Facebook Page called "The Stand Against Bullying," where she posts facts, stories and motivational quotes for her almost 100 fans.

"I feel more empowered because I can bring awareness to everyone, and not just certain groups of people," she said, "On the wall, everybody's like, 'Sidney, good job.'"

"I think we have to understand the internet is dynamic, it's not all bad. ... The role of the internet is just as important to creating the positive message as it is to creating the harmful message," Laramie said.

Ariana Tobin, a student at Washington University, is an intern at the Beacon.