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Tales of bullying, efforts to stop it shared at Capitol

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Will Taylor told the story of 15-year-old twins who were bullied because they are overweight.

Their story followed another real-life account of a 16-year-old boy who was tormented by his classmates because he is gay. That boy's teacher even asked if he "could be a little less gay?"

One 17-year-old girl received death threats for being Muslim and another 15-year-old girl had pencils thrown at her for being biracial.

"People told her she wasn't white enough to hang out with the white crowd or black enough to hang with the black crowd," Taylor said, standing on the steps of the state Capitol on Monday. "She said, 'I'd rather be my own person than 400 people who are all the same.'"

Taylor, a Step by Step AmeriCorps VISTA member, spoke during the second annual Bully Awareness Vigil hosted by Step by Step, an organization that works to foster, support and grow community leadership, especially among underprivileged youth.

This week marks the state's Bully Awareness Week. October is National Bullying Prevention Month.

Bullying has declined in West Virginia's high schools, proving that bullying awareness is working, said Tonya Barnett-Huff, director of Bully Free West Virginia.

In West Virginia high schools, nearly 19 percent of students reported being bullied on school property in 2011, compared to 23.5 percent of students in 2009, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the state Department of Education.

The number of high school students in the state who have seriously contemplated suicide has decreased, too, from 18 percent of students in 2009 to 13 percent in 2011, according to the report.

While the decrease in bullying in the state's high schools is a good sign, Barnett-Huff said more awareness must be spread in West Virginia's middle schools.

In 2011, nearly half of middle school students in the state reported being bullied on school property, an increase from 2009's nearly 47 percent of middle school students. The number of West Virginia middle school students who have thought about killing themselves also increased to 20 percent in 2011.

"A lot of the focus has been on high school students but maybe we should start awareness in elementary school," Barnett-Huff said Monday. "We need to educate students. Kids need this."

Barnett-Huff said Bully Free West Virginia has educated parents so they know how to teach their own children. The group also hosts an anti-bullying summit for teachers and youth leaders from the state. This year's summit discussed how to keep children "cyber-safe" and how to curb bullying on the Internet.

In March, West Virginia became the seventh state to enact the Jason Flatt Act of 2012, which requires that educators be trained to recognize students at risk of suicide.

Last year, the state Department of Education approved a policy outlining expected behavior in schools, providing employees, students and parents with the same guidelines for bullying situations.

The policy is the foundation of the department's "It Does Matter" campaign, a program in public schools across the state to remind students that their problems are heard.

"Hosting this vigil let's people know where they can get resources, and that's how we're going to see bullying go down in West Virginia -- by educating," Barnett-Huff said.

For more information, email Bully Free West Virginia at bullyfreewv@stepbystepwv.org or call 304-414-4452.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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