Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones but Names Will Never Hurt Me...Bullshit!

To say that middle school has been difficult for Olivia Gardner of Novato, California is like saying the poop doesn't stink! Nationwide, 4 in 10 teens have been victims of taunts and threats via social network Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook, instant messages and text messages from cell phones, according to the National Crime Prevention Council. One in 8 reported feeling scared enough to stay home from school. Many of us have been through it...heck, being fat in high school didn't always make it easy. You had to figure out a way to cope. Some people are able to overcome "bullying" and some have permanent scars...and some of those scars have led people to take their own lives. Now that truly sucks!

In Olivia's case, it was so bad that after three different schools, her mother finally pulled her out and is homeschooling her. Olivia has epilepsy. It's not her fault but when she had a seizure at school, the other kids called her a "retard" and dragged her backpack through the mud. Thus began the bullying that followed her to two other schools. It escalated to posters posted around her school and even showed up online with a page on MySpace. She was happy for about a year at a third middle school, but then the mother and daughter were called on to help a classmate who said her parents abused her. During the Child Protective Services investigation, word got out that the Gardners were involved, and tables turned on them. The girl allegedly changed her story and told classmates that Olivia had tried to break up her family. Rumors spread again, and Olivia was bombarded with calls and e-mails. Students started wearing plastic bracelets declaring their hatred for Olivia, Kathleen Gardner said. It got so bad for this girl that she even contemplated suicide.

But then, the good of our world came out, came online and made a difference. And thank God for people like this. Two sisters, Emily and Sarah Buder, from nearby Mill Valley, read about Olivia's plight and wrote to her. They also got their schoolmates to write to her. Then it really started to spread and Olivia started getting letters of support from all over the country and beyond. She got letters from kids and adults. Over a thousand strangers have written to her to share their support. As word spread through the media and internet, letters flooded in from far beyond the Bay Area.

"I was expecting an immediate response just from the community around me," Emily said. "But then it was so incredible to see letters from Oregon, Australia and all these places." Children sent drawings of hearts or stick figures of themselves holding hands with Olivia. Many of these letters would bring tears to your eyes. Check these out...

"Dear Olivia, I think you are very brave ..."

"Dear Olivia, Don't let the bullies get inside your head ..."

"Dear Olivia, It goes to show that for every bully that puts us down, there are a hundred loving people to pick us up ..."

"Dear Olivia, I'm 60 years old and have lived in Marin County my whole life. When I was in the 5th grade I arrived at school and found a note in my desk signed by every girl in my class, except for my 2 closest friends, saying the most horrible things about me. ... Olivia, I hope it helps to know that others are thinking about you and have been through what you went through. Stay strong."

Rochelle Sides of Texas wrote of her daughter, Corinne Wilson, who fatally shot herself in the forehead one day after school when she was 13. It was the culmination of nearly a year of bullying by two girls who once were her best friends, "Every day they told her she was ugly and fat and couldn't sing and her hair was frizzy," said Sides, now active in anti-bully campaigns such as Bully Police U.S.A. Then, Sides said, the girls started telling Corinne she should just die. Corinne wrote about her problems in her English class journal but never spoke about them with her parents. Corinne must have felt terribly alone, her mother said.

The biggest part of this problem is that these kids, and kids like I was, feel alone. As adults, you can tell a kid that they are good, they are pretty, they have "potential" and that the bullies are wrong. But it really doesn't hold squat in this world full of peer pressure. So, just maybe, a lot of positive feedback from their peers could be just the thing to save their lives.

Olivia's scars aren't physical. But she rarely looks up while she speaks, preferring to fiddle with her hands or a silver heart necklace sent recently by an anonymous supporter. From behind a curtain of her hair, she answers questions about her interests -- guitar, keyboards, karate and drama. She wants to be an actress when she grows up. Olivia has made amazing progress and is accepting some requests to speak to students. She and the two sisters talked with fifth-grade girls in San Rafael at a program called Midway Cafe, which prepares them for the social rigors of middle school and the effects of bullying. She also is getting excited about starting high school next year.

Patti Agatston, an author and counselor who specializes in bully prevention for the Cobb County School District in Atlanta, also wrote a letter to Olivia and hopes to launch an "Olivia's Letters" link on her Web site, The idea is to gather the names of bully victims who could use some support and launch students on letter-writing campaigns. "It makes me feel I have support," Olivia says, "I just wish it was from someone I knew." You can mail encouraging letters to Olivia's Letters, c/o Janet Buder, 775 East Blithedale Ave. #106, Mill Valley, CA 94941 or e-mail

Honestly, I'm amazed that this wasn't nipped in the ass -- there should have been some training done at that first school after the first incident so that it went no further. It's nice, however, to know that there are kids who will make the effort to help someone who has been targeted by bullies. Whether Olivia likes it or not, she helped bring attention to the widespread and tenacious problem of bullying in school hallways, on cell phones and in cyberspace. At least 1,000 strangers have sent her letters and e-mails of support, and there's talk of a book deal, Web sites and letter campaigns for other children who are bullied, and the three girls have received countless interview requests. I hope Olivia continues to do well. Kudos to the Buder sisters for getting this started.

Okay people. It's time to get off your ass and do something about this problem. Keep an eye on your kids. Find out how they act. Track their internet use if you have to. This crap has got to stop. I've been there. I know what it's like. To Olivia and the two sisters who helped bring light to this problem and possibly save the life of a little girl...Rock On!