Bully panel answers student questions

Nearly 10 years ago to the day, Kevin Epling’s son Matthew took his own life. Matt, who was 14 and just entering his freshman year, killed himself, his father said, because he had been bullied by upperclassmen. It was a tradition for upperclassmen to treat new students that way, Epling said.“Hazing has been normalized in schools,” Epling said. “No one was speaking out.”

Students line up to ask the panel questions regarding bullying. All panel members are involved in anti-bullying education for students in Michigan. SAMANTHA VANHOEF / PHOTO

What Epling didn’t know, however, was how deeply his son was hurt by the treatment. After his son died, Epling said he asked himself what he could do to prevent future hazing in schools. Working with state legislators, Epling’s efforts eventually led to passage of “Matt’s Safe School Law,” a piece of Michigan legislation passed in 2011 that now requires all schools to have anti-bullying policies.

Epling was part of an expert panel that discussed the issue of bullying and harassment in schools. The panel, which occurred on July 30, also included Michigan state trooper Marco Jones, Mason High School principal Lance Delbridge, Senator Gretchen Whitner and social activist Katy Butler.

Panel members listen as students ask questions about the topic of bullying. The July 30 panel discussion was the first seminar of the week for MIPA journalism students. SAMANTHA VANHOEF / PHOTO

“This kind of conversation is the first step to change,” Whitner said during the discussion. Whitner, the Democratic Party leader in the state Senate, was a driving force behind the legislation to cement an anti-bullying law in Michigan.

The panel focused on establishing a definition behind the act bullying and ways bullying has evolved since the integration of technology into mainstream culture.

As part of the Michigan State Police, Jones works with several schools regarding bullying. “If (actions are) continual and someone feels terrorized or threatened, (it’s bullying); and there’s no one in this room that deserves to feel this way. Nobody,” Jones said.

Butler is a senior at Greenhill private high school in Ann Arbor. A former victim of bullying, she worked to successfully recategorize the film “Bully”, a 2011 documentary feature distributed by The Weinstein Company, from an R rating to PG-13. The film candidly portrays life as a victim of bullying in the United States and received positive reviews. The film includes graphic language and content, but Butler said she thought students needed to see it. She started a petition and compiled more than 500,000 signatures.

Butler said reactions to her campaign were mixed.

“I shared my story, and for that I got negative comments and from those who thought it should be ‘R,’” Butler said. “But the positive outweighed the negative.”

Since 2001, 21 Michigan families besides the Eplings have lost a child due to complications with being bullied. However, Epling said these situations don’t have to continue. Students, he said, must stand up for those being harassed.

“Five percent (of students) are causing the problem and 95 percent are watching it,” Epling said to the student journalists during the panel discussion. “The conversation is now yours, run with it.” KATHLEEN DAVIS AND KELSEY MCCLEAR / REPORTERS

(Bully is rated PG-13 for intense thematic material, disturbing content, and some strong language – all involving kids.)

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