HOLLY SPRINGS — There was a retired Secret Service agent, a member of the N.C. House of Representatives, a former adviser to a New York City mayor and leaders of several nonprofits.
Together, they wanted to help prevent bullying in local schools.
Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears launched the town’s Anti-Bullying Committee last month in hopes it can become a resource in the fight against bullying.
Representatives from local schools attend the committee meetings, along with guests who can weigh in on the problem.
Sears said he doesn’t think Holly Springs residents see bullying as a major issue because the town hasn’t experienced a tragedy that has prompted widespread media attention.
But Sears and local educators insist the problem exists, sprouting in elementary school classrooms and humiliating teenagers on social media.
“We’re not trying to tell you how to do your job, we’re trying to help you do your job,” Sears told a group of parents and teachers during a committee meeting on Tuesday.
Melissa DeRosier, a clinical psychologist and president of 3C Institute in Cary, was the guest speaker at the meeting. She emphasized the importance of addressing the issue of bullying.
DeRosier said more than 70 percent of school violence is a reaction to bullying, according to a study she conducted over 20 years.
Bullying “has this insidious, damaging impact over time,” she said.
Not only does it affect students’ self esteem, DeRosier said, it also affects their grades.
“There is a direct link between social and behavioral issues and academics,” she said.
DeRosier and others handed out materials with definitions of bullying, statistics about bullying and strategies for combating it.
Educators offered advice, too.
Ken Proulx, principal of Holly Grove Middle School, said students became more outspoken at his school when administrators began taking anonymous complaints through a “bully box.”
Proulx’s staff reads and investigates each complaint.
“The more (students) see us work with them, the more they want to be part of the solution,” he said.
Bullies need help too, said James Johnson, a former police officer in New York City who advised the mayor on gangs.
Often, bullies grow up in tough environments where their own parents and sibling are verbally abusive, he said.
“There are a lot of parents in survival mode,” Johnson said. “They learn to get along through manipulation and intimidation.”
Sometimes bullies just need to be taught where teasing stops and bullying begins, he said.
“It would help to teach kids to use safe words,” he said. “They could say, ‘Hey, that’s below the belt’ if it goes too far.”
It seemed as if everyone at Tuesday’s meeting had a story of being bullied or witnessing someone else being bullied.
Sears said he still remembers the name of the student who bullied him in third grade for being short.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “It was always on the playground while I was at elementary school in Gaston, Indiana.”
Dawn Ward, a parent who co-chairs the committee, said bullying “almost buried” her daughter in middle school.
The actions of other students affected her daughter’s self-esteem so much that “I didn’t recognize her anymore,” Ward said.
Sam Greene, a counselor at Holly Springs High School, said he saw evidence of bullying on Twitter as recently as Tuesday morning.
The school does a lot to stay on top of it, he said, but social media provides a platform where administrators are almost powerless.
“It’s so frustrating,” Greene said, throwing his hands up and shaking his head.
So far, there are few foolproof answers.
“Every time you think you have one thing solved, something new comes up,” said state Rep. Rosa Gill, a retired educator and former member of the Wake County school board.
Gill said help is unlikely to come from the state level.
“In the General Assembly, they don’t think it’s a big issue,” she said. “But every day, kids are committing suicide and we have to pay attention to it.”
Gill said she sees signs of progress.
“I’ve never been to a meeting that had so many men talk about something that affects their children,” she said.
Specht: 919-460-2608; Twitter: @AndySpecht