Students and staff at Tamaqua Area High School have come together to draw greater attention to a national problem.
Realizing the lifelong effects of bullying, a number of students from Thelma Urban's language arts class put their minds together recently to produce a video portraying facts and stories relating to the short- and long-term effects of bullying, as well as the lifelong scars it can leave.
Urban, who usually assigns an essay or a project on what a hero is to the students, decided to do something different with her honors classes this year. During a discussion, her students identified modern social problems they saw around them, about which they wished they could do something. After forming into groups, students determined that bullying was a problem that needed to be fixed.
"I am so impressed by the students involved in the bullying project," Urban said.
Key students were Amanda Hinkle, Haleigh Jacob, Alexandra Miller, Tyler Billig and Rebecca John.
"They really attacked their issue with passion and fervor. It was obvious that this was more than a grade to them that they really cared about making a difference. They devoted dozens of hours of their own time after school to stay with me to brainstorm ideas and put those ideas to work, working extremely hard as a unified group with a single purpose of getting their unique message about bullying across."
The video includes anonymous personal experiences of their classmates as well as faculty members, advice from senior role models to bullies and victims of bullies, national stories about bullying, inspirational quotes and encouragement, statistics unique to Tamaqua High School garnered from a survey completed by the entire student body, and avenues teens can turn to for help.
"The response from the students and faculty was entirely positive," Urban said.
Following the video, many students cried and thanked the group. One teacher in the school even abandoned her lesson plans for the rest of the day so students could discuss the video and the overall issue of bullying with her classes.
The 18-minute video states that national figures show that one in seven students from kindergarten to seniors in high school is either a bully or a victim of bullying. It also added that 61 percent of Tamaqua High School students have been bullied and that 53 students in the high school have admitted in the survey to thinking about or attempting suicide.
"She (the bully) was the first person I thought of when I woke up in the morning and the last person I thought of before I fell asleep every night, as well as the name that popped into my head when the bell rang. I lived in fear of her … I could still hear her clear as a bell 45 years later."
Those were the words read in the video by Urban as she recalled memories of a fellow Tamaqua High School teacher.
In the video, one female Tamaqua student recalled hurtful words like "you look like a pregnant whale" and "you are fat."
She added, "I was only little, but ever since that day, I thought I was fat." Those statements eventually lead the student to two suicide attempts and an 11-year eating disorder. In the video, it states that 40 percent of 9- and 10-year-old girls have tried to lose weight.
"The project as a whole is identified by the title of the project: 'Hero Project,'" Stephen P. Toth, Tamaqua High School principal, said.
"We have the resources at the school to combat bullying, such as faculty members and guidance counselors. We are finding out that bullying is happening much more outside the school, especially via Facebook and other online social medias. Schools aren't able to track and monitor cyber bullying at home. What these students have done is brought the light to some of these issues, to include new forms of bullying like cyber bullying," Toth said.
"Parents, students and faculty might not be aware of or understand these forms of online bullying. Our school district strongly encourages open communication between students, staff and parents. When our staff and faculty see problems with bullying we deal with it. Although it is the unknown things we may not have knowledge of, like Facebook banter, cyber bullying and other events that happen outside the school.
"Those are the things the video has brought to light. From a positive sense, I think this video has opened lines of communication to some things that do not necessarily happen throughout the school day. Anyone attending school has been affected by a bully," he added.
"No one has been immune. It is important that the open lines of communication are met. We teach various forms of student interaction and anti bullying via our freshman curriculum, family living class, health class and guidance counselors. The policy concerning bullying and required procedures can be viewed on the school's website. All teachers and faculty in our district are "mandated reporters" and hold this title as to make sure no student falls through the cracks. Allowing projects like this to occur helps further facilitate our schools understand and fight against bullying.
"Things happening outside of school greatly affect how a student will act and perform inside of school," Toth added.
The video encourages students to identify which of their classmates are bullies, followers or henchmen, supporters or passive bullies, passive supporters or possible bullies, disengaged onlookers, possible defenders, defenders and students being bullied.
Hinkle, who was bullied while attending a prior school, said, "Teachers were always there to help, but I was embarrassed to go to them and afraid of what they might say. I stopped loving school. I was sick of it and wanted to stay at home and hide."
She stressed that Tamaqua students are a family and come together to help each other in need. She added that parents should be more alert to verbal assaults via Facebook and other social media, pointing out the Internet's impact on bullying.
Haleigh, who's been on both sides of bullying, said, "We weren't happy with the results of the survey and chose to make the video because we wanted people to understand how students and teachers felt about bullying and that Tamaqua isn't the only school affected."
She added that bullying discourages people from joining clubs and getting involved with other extracurricular activities.
"I was ecstatic concerning the outcome of the video. During the video, I saw people crying. It made me realize that we are a school that sticks together," she said.
Both Amanda and Haleigh stressed that the video reflects the climate of all schools all across the nation.
Lawrence Capozzelli, physics teacher, who recalled being bullied on the school bus as a child, also spoke in the video
"Even though they say sticks and stones never hurt … they do hurt, they hurt a lot," Capozzelli said. "Those words carry scars that go a lot deeper than anything physical that ever happened. Bullying is so humiliating."
He recalled a situation regarding a sophomore classmate who had died with a gun the same day he was picked on heavily by students.
"The pain that I have had to carry around is a lot more than anyone can imagine. Because of that day," he said " I decided when I became a teacher I would never allow another student be bullied if I saw it."
Wiping a tear away, Capozzelli said, "I do whatever I can to make my students feel welcome in my classroom."
Hinkle said it best.
"Openly communicate. Whether it be students, parents or persons affected by a bully."
The video can be viewed online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5DZYWt4cpw  or during the Independent Film Festival next Friday starting at 7 p.m. in the school district's auditorium.