By Susan Green, Special Contributor
ZEPHYRHILLS, Fla.—When Julie Nipp, director of children’s ministries at First UMC, Zephyrhills, heard about a teenager trying to hang himself after being mercilessly taunted at the local high school, she couldn’t stop thinking about ways to tackle the problem of bullies.
Somehow that led to her and First UMC’s student ministries director, Jerry Tadlock, lying on a school gym floor with a stunt biker jumping over them.
Mr. Tadlock even stood on a platform and let BMX biking team member Rob Nolli soar over his head.
“I’m up for anything if it makes [kids] happy,” said Mr. Tadlock, who denied having any doubts for his safety.
More than pleasing young spectators, though, the stunts of the BMX Pros Trick Team got the attention of more than 1,000 students filling the bleachers Nov. 30 at Stewart Middle School.
Between dizzying back flips and “Look, Ma, no hands” high in the air, professional stunt bikers Mr. Nolli of Orlando and Dustin McCarty of San Diego, Calif., took advantage of the spotlight to deliver anti-bullying messages at Stewart and two other Zephyrhills schools.
“If you see bullying going on, if you see your friends or family members being bullied . . . make sure you tell someone,” Mr. McCarty told the crowd, many of whom wore tie-dyed shirts in honor of “Erase the Hate Week” at the school.
“Tell teachers, tell the principal, tell your parents. If you keep it to yourself, that means it’s going to keep happening.
“That’s why First United Methodist has brought us out here,” Mr. McCarty continued, “because they care about each and every one of you out there.”
Don’t stand for it
He encouraged the students to get involved in after-school activities at the church or elsewhere to help build character and to lessen the chances of becoming the target of a bully.
“Treat people the way you would like to be treated,” Mr. McCarty said. “Your school, your community, they’re not going to stand for bullies anymore.”
As First UMC’s pastor, the Rev. Ken Minton looked on, Ms. Nipp and Mr. Tadlock also announced an agreement among several Zephyrhills churches to display anti-bullying signs on their buildings to denote safe havens for youths seeking refuge from verbal or physical bullying.
Bullying has been in the spotlight in recent years, with incidents posted on YouTube and other social media sites.
The small, close-knit town of Zephyrhills, best known for its name gracing an international brand of bottled water, rocketed into national awareness in 2011 when Zachery Gray, then 17, was found barely alive in a noose he had fashioned from a dog chain in a backyard shed.
The Zephyrhills High School student suffered severe brain injury and paralysis and remains in a Pinellas County medical facility 60 miles from his parents’ home. His mother, Sissy Gray, said by phone he has made some improvement, speaking the words “Mom” and “No,” but continues to require round-the-clock care.
‘If we can save one’
She said her son endured relentless taunting daily at school. She said she discovered after the attempted hanging that he confided in a teacher who told him to tough it out and did not notify Ms. Gray of her son’s distress.
“He felt like he had nowhere to go,” she said.
The tragedy has taken its toll on the family, both emotionally and financially, she said. She juggles a job and household duties with 120-mile round-trips to visit her son, and the strain wore out the motor of the car she had when her son was injured.
She said she appreciates the efforts of First UMC, Zephyrhills, and thinks it will help address the epidemic of bullying.
“I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “I think if we can save one kid, all the efforts are worth it.”
She hopes that adult educators, along with children, will learn from the messages.
“A lot of kids don’t tell anybody,” Ms. Gray said, adding that often the child who complains of being bullied is moved out of his or her routine and away from friends, rather than adults confronting the alleged bully and resolving the conflict.
“They feel like they’re being punished because they told someone,” Ms. Gray said of youths who report the abuse.
‘Go tell someone’
Shae Davis, principal at Stewart Middle School, said the BMX show capped a week of activities “promoting peace and peace-making.” The activities included small-group discussions and role-playing exercises related to the issue of bullying.
Teens interviewed after they saw the BMX message at Stewart Middle School said they thought it packed a powerful punch.
“A lot of kids like seeing stuff like that,” said Logan Cabral, 13, an eighth-grader at Stewart and a member of the youth group at First UMC. “They look up to them, basically. If they say, ‘Don’t do this,’ they won’t.”
He and Elizabeth Fields, 14, who also attends eighth grade and First UMC’s youth group, said they had experienced bullying or had seen other students become targets of bullies.
She and Logan said they took away some messages about what to do when they see that happen. Elizabeth said it is important to show support and say, “I’m here for you.”
Added Logan: “Go tell someone. You want to do the same thing for other people that you would want them to do for you.”
Ms. Green is editor of Florida Conference Connection (floridaconferenceconnection.info), an online publication of the UMC’s Florida Conference.