Stop bullying: ‘Be that person’s friend’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 28, 2014

SALISBURY — Colin Cunningham went from saying he had no friends to realizing he had more than 2 million of them.
As Cunningham waited to give his message at Salisbury’s “Stop the Silence” anti-bullying rally Saturday, he said he wanted other kids, who see bullying going on, to step in and stand up for the child being bullied.
“Be that person’s friend,” said Cunningham, who in recent months has become sort of a national symbol — down to his trademark bow tie — of the anti-bullying movement.
From Kalamazoo, Mich., Cunningham traveled more than 11 hours by car with his parents, Brook and Jennifer Cunningham, and his little sister, Ella, to be part of Saturday’s rally, which came exactly a year after the death of Erwin Middle School sixth-grader Daniel Safrit, who committed suicide because of being bullied at school.
Cunningham came into the national conscience from a simple message his mother posted on a Facebook page, “Colin’s Friends,” she created for him prior to his 11th birthday.
The post said, “I am Colin’s mom, I created this page for my amazing, wonderful, challenging son who is about to turn 11 on March 9th. Because of Colin’s disabilities, social skills are not easy for him, and he often acts out in school, and the other kids don’t like him. So when I asked him if he wanted a party for his birthday, he said there wasn’t a point because he has no friends. He eats lunch alone in the office everyday because no one will let him sit with them, and rather than force someone to be unhappy with his presence, he sits alone in the office. So I thought, if I could create a page where people could send him positive thoughts and encouraging words, that would be better than any birthday party. Please join me in making my very original son feel special on his day.”
As of Saturday, the Colin’s Friends Facebook page had more than 2.1 million “likes.”
His mother’s original post received 368,448 likes and 226,959 comments. The page has become a place where Colin now tries to post a weekly video and where he and his family look to communicate, reach out and help others.
In Salisbury Saturday, Cunningham said bullying isn’t just a middle school or high school issue. It can happen at any age, and for kids, it can start before kindergarten, he said, especially if you’re different.
The disabilities his mother referred to relate to a sensory processing disorder and something similar to autism.
Besides seeing his Facebook page go viral, Colin Cunningham also played a big role in the music video “Carry On” by Galvanized Souls, Saturday’s featured band from southern California.
“This is a special thing,” Colin said of coming to Saturday’s rally. “We don’t do this every weekend. This is a little unusual.”
A large stage for musical performers was set up in the 110 S. Lee St. parking lot, while all kinds of games, activities, information booths and vendors also filled in the 100 block of East Fisher Street during the daylong event.
Stop the Silence founder Elizabeth Bailey said the rally was meant to celebrate the life and memory of Daniel Safrit. It also was designed, as many T-shirts in the crowd said, to raise awareness and promote education, prevention and empowerment against bullying.
“As of now, I can tell you for a fact, we have stopped four children” from taking their lives, Bailey said of her local group’s impact since Daniel’s death.
“We talk to kids every day.”
Bailey, whose four children range in age from 4 to 10, hoped proceeds raised from Saturday’s rally could help fund Rachel’s Challenge programs at Knox Middle and North Rowan Middle schools. Those schools need the program but can’t afford it, she said.
Erwin, East Rowan High and Corriher-Lipe Middle School already have Rachel’s Challenge efforts underway.
Bailey said bullying is at its “peak” and especially dangerous in middle school, a pivotal age when many children are trying to fit in and find their way socially.
Bailey said she didn’t know until Daniel Safrit’s death how serious and prevalent an issue bullying was. “It’s absolutely mind-boggling,” she said.
Sarah Livengood, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Erwin, was a close friend of Daniel Safrit. She said she and others went to guidance counselors with their concerns about the kind of effect bullying was having on Daniel.
She said anti-bullying efforts have improved, because “people are just more conscious of it,” and she said rallies such as the one held Saturday are “very important.”
Bullying at her school involves kids being picked on, pushed down and called names, Livengood said. Many times, it’s smaller kids who are the targets, she added.
The Livengood family are close friends to the Safrits.
“Seeing him (Daniel) in the casket like that is something I don’t want to experience again,” Sarah’s mother, Stacy, said.
Megan Braun, a senior at North Rowan High School, is a spokesperson for National Voices for Equality, Education and Enlightenment. Later this month, she’ll be traveling to a red-carpet NVEEE event in Miami, Fla.
Established in 2009, NVEE aims at preventing bullying, violence and suicide among youth, families and communities, the nonprofit’s mission statement says.
“When I heard Colin’s story,” Braun said Saturday, “it just broke my heart.”
Braun said she endured bullying in middle school, and she’s not sure why she was a target, other than that she was quiet and maybe an easy mark. As school progressed, she became more involved in things, gaining self-esteem along the way.
“I’m more outspoken now,” Braun said.
In high school, she still sees bullying, and much of it is directed at gay and lesbian students. “But it’s not nearly as bad as middle school,” Braun said overall.
Michael and Deborah Hughes have has first-hand knowledge of what impact bullies can have on a whole family. Their son, Jacob, now a senior in high school, was physically attacked by four other boys while on a Erwin Middle School field trip to Carteret County in the fall of 2010.
The boys were charged as juveniles with taking indecent liberties, and the Hugheses sued the school system in civil court. A settlement was reached in that civil suit this year.
“I think it’s important for everyone to let these children know we have their backs,” Deborah Hughes said.
The family has found expressing themselves through art as a way to deal with the trauma associated with the attack on Jacob. At the rally Saturday, they set up a booth called “Rainbow Creations” to invite people to try their hands at expressing themselves with paints.
“It just soothes the soul to create,” Deborah explained.
The couple say since Jacob’s attack, field trip policies have changed in the schools and some programs have been established. But it hasn’t been something easily pushed aside.
“It affected the whole family,” Deborah said. “We deal with it every day.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.