Lake Norman & Mooresville

Local parents create anti-bullying group

It used to be a lot clearer who the bullies were in school. They were the ones who stole your lunch money, put your head in the toilet and beat you up after school.

But as the Internet and social-networking sites have become increasingly paramount in adolescent lives, bullying has taken on new forms. Now malicious rumors and other forms of verbal bullying can be spread quicker and to a larger audience using the Internet, exacerbating bullying in schools.

Cornelius resident Arlene Berkman said she's had enough of this growing problem in schools. So she decided to do something. With friends Sid Krupkin and Diane Benson, she created the Foundation For Respect Ability, an organization that aims to address bullying with parents, educators and students through entertainment.

The foundation will host its first anti-bullying concert at 1 p.m. on Sunday at St Alban's Episcopal Church in Davidson.

"Through music, we want to unite and inspire change," said Berkman, who has three grandchildren. "We want to encourage bystanders when blatant acts of cruelty and ignorance occur in their presence to stand up to those bullies and let them know that it's not acceptable."

The foundation's mission is modeled after Operation Respect, which is spearheaded by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, said Berkman.

"Folk music has always strived to be the voice for people that are downtrodden," said Krupkin, who is the education director at Beth Shalom of Lake Norman, where he met Berkman. "These songs have always tried to champion the cause of people who don't have voices."

Krupkin, who has two young grandchildren, has spent his entire education career using music to reach students on the periphery of the social circle, the kind of people who usually end up becoming victims of bullying.

He said the Foundation for Respect Ability wants to focus not so much on the bully or the bullied, but the bystander.

"We want to turn bystanders into up-standers. What we're really trying to change is the person who witnesses bullying, who sees what's going on and doesn't do anything about it. We want them to say, 'This is wrong.'"

Sometimes standing up to bullies can have profound consequences, said Krupkin, recalling a former student in Buffalo, N.Y decades ago.

Johnny attracted the jeers of many bullies at McKinley High School in Buffalo because of his offbeat style: spiked hair, leather jacket and black painted nails, said Krupkin.

But Krupkin knew something most of the bullies didn't: Johnny loved to play music. So Krupkin invited Johnny to perform in an annual music show at the high school. When Johnny performed an original piece, the audience of 2,400 students nearly booed his band off the stage.

But then something amazing happened, said Krupkin.

Johnny's drummer stepped down from his platform and addressed the audience, demanding they give the music a chance.

"The whole place went silent and the band started playing again. By the time they were done, everybody was cheering," said Krupkin. "That student was Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls. That could have gone either way that day, but it became this huge moment in his life."

The Goo Goo Dolls is an alternative rock band that garnered fame in the late-90s with their album "Dizzy Up the Girl."

But it isn't always a happy ending for the students who get bullied by a peer. According to studies by Yale University, people who are bullied are between 2 and 9 times more likely to consider suicide than their peers.

One British study found at least half of youth suicides are related to bullying.

And yet, bullying remains pervasive in the nation's schools. The 2009 Indicators of School Crime and Safety report, a joint study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and National Center for Education Statistics, found one third of teens reported being bullied while at school.

Still, the foundation doesn't just want to point the finger at bullies and demonize them, said Krupkin.

"Many times bullies are just looking for attention," he said. "The bully needs help too. They need to understand that they don't need to conduct their life that way, that they can get what the need without bullying."

If they don't learn that lesson early in life, said Benson, who has two school-age grandchildren. the life of a former bully can be bleak, with some chronic bullies ending up in prison.

Although the three planned the event, Krupkin will be the one who performs at Sunday's inaugural event, which will include such anti-bullying songs as "Don't Laugh at Me." Krupkin has also planned interactive skits for Sunday to get people thinking about what they would do in situations involving bullying.

Still, Berkman, said there needs to be a community effort to teach good character in order to eradicate bullying in the schools and community.

"Bullying has a lot to do with one's character, one's ability to be tolerant, understanding and empathetic," she said.

"If you have a situation where there are inadequacies at the home in terms of behavior and tolerance and empathy, that's what they think is OK unless someone shows that them it is not acceptable."