South Charlotte

Putting the spotlight on bullying victims

Terry Gabbard, 31, says he wasn't bullied when he was in middle school.

"Bullying is a power thing," said Gabbard. "One kid, physically smaller, less popular, lower financial or social standing, is exploited because of the lower standing. Real bullying is on a day-to-day basis - cruel and horrible, can be subtle."

Two years ago, Gabbard moved to Ardrey Crest in south Charlotte with his wife, Erika, a clinical nurse specialist, 10-year-old stepdaughter Kiera and 5-year-old son Ryan.

This school year marks Gabbard's second teaching drama at Community House Middle School. Gabbard also is pursuing graduate studies in education leadership at Queens University of Charlotte; he also directs and acts.

In 2006, while a teacher at West Port Middle School in Ocala, Fla., bullying as a social issue inspired Gabbard to write an original play titled "Sarah's Journal: One Girl's Fight Against Bullying."

"Sarah's Journal" was performed at West Port Middle School three times.

The title character Sarah Baker is a 14-year-old eighth-grader who is verbally and physically bullied on a daily basis at a fictitious middle school in Anytown, USA. "Sarah's Journal" gives snapshots of her life from August to April of her eighth-grade year.

"This year, after many national tragedies related to school bullying, it became clear to me that ("Sarah's Journal") needed to be revised and presented again," said Gabbard.

The National Center for Education Statistics has reported that 32 percent of 12- to 18-year-olds have been bullied in school, and 4 percent have been bullied online.

"CMS is very cognizant of nationwide bullying," said Community House Principal Jamie Brooks, who was supportive of producing the play with the Fine Arts department as another way to address the issue.

Community House is also using a bullying pledge and an anonymous bully box, among other tools. Students can report bullying anonymously by writing a note and putting it in the box. The school follows up on the reports.

The school is "addressing bullying out loud and upfront," said Brooks, "but it doesn't mean it's a bigger problem here" than anywhere else.

The school's Cavalier Players performed "Sarah's Journal" earlier this year with a cast and crew of more than 40 people. The response was so positive that "people that saw it demanded we do it again," said Gabbard.

"Sarah's Journal" has made an impact on teachers and parents as well as students.

"This play was so touching, scary, heart-wrenching and, in the end, uplifting as Sarah deals with years of bullying, until finally one girl stands up for her and gives her a reason to live," said Gina Brundick via email. Brundick is the mother of cast member Juliana Brundick.

Alyssa Vincent, 14, who plays Sarah Baker, said, "I definitely watch what I say more" as a result of the play. "If people stuck up for each other, bullies would back off. Getting resistance is a big surprise (to them)."

Eighth-grader and production sound technician Eric Duncan, 14, said, "You never know what the victim feels like until you are put into their shoes."

Gabbard "mixes in fun and humor with the overall message," said seventh-grader and spotlight operator Tristan Hedge, 13. Zombie nerds and lightsaber fights cut the tension.

"It's so refreshing that this play has had a positive impact on these kids," said Brooks.

One of the play's messages deals with responsibility.

"Whose job is it to prevent bullying?" asks Gabbard. "Bullying victims need someone to help them. They're not in the position to stop it themselves because of the power differentials."

Gabbard acknowledged adults don't always see the bullying. "We do our best, but it's difficult," he said: Children need tools to stand up for themselves and to be taught empathy.

"It's up to the kids to stop the bullying," said Gabbard.

Another message in "Sarah's Journal" is about missed opportunities. Sarah's mother and teachers miss chances to truly hear her.

"The mom didn't try to find out what was going on with Sarah," said Vincent. "Parents really need to stop and think, and look for the signs that something is wrong. ... Not finding these signs of pain and distress can lead to terrible things that could have been stopped."

Gabbard said he really would love the play to be published. "Other schools can do it, and it can keep going."