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The students sat in a circle in Columbus North High School’s choir room and, one by one, told portions of a fictional story that they were making up on the spot.
The story involved a boat on the Nile and lots of animals: sharks, koalas, stingrays, turtles and unibrow chickens.
The story made no sense — and that was OK. It was an exercise to get students comfortable talking in front of the other kids, to get them into the habit of talking — because in Columbus North High School’s anti-bullying group Spectrum, talking can save lives.
“We have a lot of bullying at our school. It’s a daily thing,” said sophomore Danielle Hodnett, 16, a member of the group.
Anywhere from bus stops to school hallways and classrooms, students are subjected to derogatory comments about anything from their sexual orientation and disabilities to their weight.
Spectrum was founded last year as a senior project by North graduate Holli Hauersperger. Hodnett and other students approached faculty sponsor Janie Gordon this school year to make sure the group continues to meet.
Gordon, North’s choir director, said the weekly Friday afternoon Spectrum meetings serve as a time for students to talk about problems — but also just to have fun, to listen to music, to play games and to support one another.
One boy this year told the group he was intimidated by people and afraid to talk to them, Gordon said. An overweight kid said some kids ridiculed him in physical education class.
The Spectrum group allows kids to share their problems in a nonjudgmental environment, Gordon said. The group helps the kids make friends and it helps them realize that they do not have to face their problems alone.
Hodnett knows from experience that a good support group can help teenagers deal with bullies.
Before high school, Danielle was bullied because she was overweight.
“It made me think there was something wrong with me,” she said.
The bullying affected her commitment to school.
“It’s harder to concentrate because it keeps running in the back of your head,” she said.
Some days, she just wanted to stay home, she said.
Thankfully, Hodnett said, she could talk to her family and friends, who encouraged her by telling her, “Don’t let it get to you.”
Hodnett said that after a while, she realized that the problem lies not with the bullied but with the bullies, who want to make themselves feel better by making others feel worse.
Columbus North High School graduate Steven Greathouse, 18, said Spectrum helped him deal with being bullied.
Greathouse, who is training to become a professional singer at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., said that he remembers walking down a hallway in the high school when he was a sophomore when two seniors walked past him, threw their drink on him and yelled a slur at him about his sexual orientation.
“I was really scared,” Greathouse said.
He said the seniors’ actions made him feel like something not human. The incident “really kind of brought me down,” he said.
He dealt with the situation by talking to peers and teachers, and when he heard about Spectrum as an upperclassman, he joined, in part to help others.
“I wanted people to know they weren’t alone,” Greathouse said.
Students often will confide in their friends — but not teachers or counselors — that they are being bullied, Gordon said. That puts pressure on the friends, because they are torn between getting help for their bullied friends — and betraying their confidence by talking to adults.
Gordon said she too frequently talks to kids who are harming themselves, who need help, but fear sharing their problems.
She remembered one student who came to her and was cutting herself. Gordon said the student received help, and improved her grades to the point that she received a scholarship for college.
Parents, teachers, administrators and fellow students need to listen to kids and accept them without judgment so that they can get help if they are being bullied, Gordon said. And parents need to know that when they drop off their kids at school, they can learn in a safe environment.
The most recent Spectrum group meeting provided tangible evidence of its importance. At each meeting, the group’s members reflect on their week and talk about one positive (a “high”) and one negative (a “low”) experience. One student listed as her “high” that she got a free root beer from Becker’s Drive-In. Another listed as a “low” that she did not get a lot of sleep. Gordon mentioned as her “low” that one of the group’s participants, a student in a wheelchair, was bullied so badly that week that she needed help and could not attend the Spectrum meeting.
Hodnett said she knows that Spectrum has helped people feel safe and more confident.
The boy who told the group that he was afraid to talk to people? He now often talks to the members of the group, Hodnett said.
Greathouse encouraged kids who are struggling to attend Spectrum meetings, to continue to work hard in school and to realize that things get better.
Greathouse said that he realized that the hard work in high school and overcoming the bullying paid off once he got to college.
“I haven’t experienced any sort of bullying here (at Millikin) whatsoever. Everybody kind of lets each other be whoever they want to be.”
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