Students sit in a dull-eyed haze as the morning announcements begin in a typical high school classroom. One twiddles with a piece of paper. Another doodles a big-eyed character from Japanese anime. Yet another has his head down, drool actually spilling on his desk as he catches a catnap.
Then the snide comments begin. After hearing about the upcoming game, someone makes a wisecrack about jocks, dampening the enthusiasm in the eyes of the boy in the football jersey.
An announcement about a meeting of the Manga Club is met with the offhand comment, “What freaks,” from a girl who wears her hair in Miley Cyrus horns. At a desk across the room, the head of the doodler in the cartoon character hat droops a little lower.
A play rehearsal announcement is met with another derisive comment about “The Sound of Blah, Blah, Blah” and the note that theater types never stop talking.
Multicultural and Latino club announcements spur a question from one student about what the Mexicans are even doing in this country, and another student about “What’s so cultural about the blacks?” while a young man with brown skin furrows his brow and narrows his eyes, muttering under his breath, “At least I’m not a racist cracker.”
Finishing the announcements, the disembodied voice coming through the intercom then directs everyone to please stand, in unity, for the Pledge of Allegiance.
And they all rise as one, but beneath the earnest words they all recite, there is no unity.
Then turning to the camera, the students speak directly to the audience, saying “I am a hunter … a farmer … an artist, a volunteer at my church. I love sports … I love music … I love dancing.”
A voiceover concludes, “Every day, kids are made fun of for being themselves. Every day, you have the power to hurt or help. Change your words. Change yourself.”
The screen goes white except for a set of statistics culled from official figures compiled by groups such as the National School Safety Commission and National Education Association.
Every day, 160,000 students miss school because of fear or intimidation.
A quarter of bullies have a criminal record by age 30.
One-seventh of high school students are either bullies or victims, but 56 percent of high schoolers witness bullying.
Fifteen percent of absenteeism can be attributed to bullying.
Seventy-one percent of students say bullying is a problem at their schools.
The scenario described above is part of an anti-bullying video project, developed, written, and acted by students from four local schools.
Some of the participants had no acting experience whatsoever, but the action carries a veracity that shows they have seen bullying, and maybe have been a victim themselves.
The above was one of three just-released videos shown at a special Premiere Night Wednesday evening at the Jefferson Area Business Center, during a reception open only to the student creators and their families, adult members of the Jefferson County Connections group and others involved in the project, and representatives of the four area community foundations and the local businesses that provided the funding for the anti-bullying project.
Sandy Swartz, the former character education director for the School District of Jefferson and the wife of retired Jefferson school Superintendent Mike Swartz, introduced the project to the audience. Swartz has been working on a part-time basis for the Jefferson County Human Services Department and its Jefferson County Connections group, once called the Delinquency Prevention Council.
Last spring, the group invited Swartz, a leading Wisconsin character education advocate, to help members develop a project centered on bullying.
“The entire project was student-led,” Swartz said. “The students wrote the scripts, chose the student actors, produced and helped film the videos,” she said, going on to explain that they chose bullying as their topic because each high school group felt like bullying is a problem in their district.
Student participants came from four area school districts: Fort Atkinson, Jefferson, Lake Mills, and Watertown. Swartz noted that as part of Jefferson County Connections, students from each school meet monthly to talk about issues in their building and to brainstorm solutions. This project brought students from all of the schools together.
Without help, though, the project was beyond the means of Jefferson County Connections, which has never had a real budget. So backers contacted local community foundations and businesses for help in financing the project.
In addition, Swartz connected the group with national character education advocate Dr. Phil Vincent, who agreed to market the completed videos through the Character Development Group, based in North Carolina. They will be featured in a nationally distributed catalog.
Wednesday night marked the premiere showing of the three videos created by the students, preceded by a reception with soda and cookies.
Barbara Gang of the Jefferson County Human Services Department, who co-chairs the committee overseeing Jefferson County Connections, said that the group had talked about doing an anti-bullying project for some time.
In October, it settled on the idea of making videos, and in three months’ time, with a lot of effort on the part of many individuals, the project was ready for release.
Gang gave kudos to Swartz as coordinator for being a driving force behind the project.
Swartz, in turn, deflected the credit to the students, for it was their concern, their ideas, their script and their voices that made this a success.
“Oftentimes, the only time students from these schools meet each other is on the competition field, whether in sports, forensics or drama,” Swartz said, stating that the anti-bullying project gave students from “opposing” schools a chance to work cooperatively together in hopes of making a difference in their schools and others.
Swartz said that the group hopes to reach a wide audience with these videos. DVDs of the three short skits will go out to each of the participants and their families, all of the participating school districts, community foundations, and businesses. They also will be available for purchase nationally through the Character Development Group.
“Dr. Vincent sends out hundreds of thousands of catalogs across the world,” Swartz said. “This will be in there.”
Any money raised through those sales will go back to Jefferson County Connections to further its work in helping young people through the county.
Swartz went on to credit a local collaborator, Chad Johnstone, who owns Highlights Media in Jefferson. Calling him a “top-notch professional … a genius,” Swartz said that he took apparently disjointed material and put it together into a seamless package, working with the students to make sure their vision shone through clearly and with a high degree of impact.
Assisting Johnstone was recent Jefferson High School graduate Matthew Meschke, who served as general “go-fer” and even got a bit acting part.
Kole Klement, a junior from Fort Atkinson High School, said that the process began three months ago when the students started brainstorming ideas. The next time they met, they began writing their scripts, and then it was into the production phase.
“It was really interesting to see all the aspects that went into it,” Klement said.
Some of the students had drama experience, but not him, he said.
“I’d say a line and Chad would make me do it 10 different times to get it right. I had no idea what I was doing,” Klement said. “But it was amazing how fast it came together.”
The students created three videos, the first (which leads this story) titled “Announcements,” the second titled “Relationships” and the third titled “Signs.”
The filming was done at Jefferson High School out of convenience, as both Swartz and Johnstone reside in Jefferson. Swartz credited the local district with being willing to host the project and the area districts with being willing to let their students come to Jefferson, sometimes missing school in the process, in order to see the project to its completion.
Along with creating the videos themselves, coordinators also came up with discussion questions around the videos. These questions spurred some thought-provoking discussions among the students themselves, as well. For example, after the video “Announcements,” students talked about how the use of labels diminishes others and defines them as only one thing, how labels can lead to bullying and why it’s important to see people as individuals.
The second video, “Relationships” starts with an interior monologue by a very sober-looking girl.
“I was perfect,” she said. “I loved sports. I had tons of friends. I got straight ‘A’s, and I had the best boyfriend, or so I thought.”
But she discovered all was not what she had imagined when he caught her texting a casual acquaintance and immediately leaped to the wrong conclusions, then started attempting to control her.
The audience sees the boyfriend take the girl’s phone and delete the contact, accuse her of immoral actions in very base language and almost physically threaten her against her locker.
“So I broke up with him,” the girl continues, confiding that she guesses she should have done it in person but she was worried about what might happen, so she did it by text.
Immediately, he accused her of cheating and put the information out as fact on every social media available. Meanwhile, her phone filled up with instant messages from former friends calling her vulgar names, acquaintances passing along and speculating on unverified gossip, and angry accusations from her boyfriend’s mother.
The messages begin to pile up on the screen and in the words of everyone she knows, each one weighing her down until she feels she just can’t rise.
Only one voice of reason attempts to penetrate the mess, when a teacher says, “Wait, we don’t know the whole story here,” but his voice is drowned out by the crowd.
The video ends with the statement, “Every day, people will say online what they won’t say in person. You have the power to hurt or help. Change your words, change yourself.”
After this video, potential discussion questions ask about how social media and modern technology can be used to bully, what students and parents can do to fight this trend, and how it has impacted people they know, whether as victims or perpetrators.
“How do you feel about your decision to engage in that behavior?” Swartz asked.
The coordinator noted that if the students only could have produced one video, this is the one they would have chosen, so prevalent is online bullying in the modern school environment.
The third video, titled “Signs,” starts with just that: individuals holding up signs. The signs, written swiftly in black paint, silently assert, “I Am Important.” “I Feel Pain, Just Like You Do” and implore people not to “tease” when the teasing hurts the person being teased.
Instead, more signs implore watchers to pay compliments, not poke fun; not to stand by when they see bullying happening, and to seek assistance to help those being bullied.
“Remember, you are important,” a final sign says.
The same statistics scroll across the bottom of each video, reinforcing the message and the facts behind the epidemic of bullying.
After the premiere, coordinators gave kudos to the student creators/actors and for the organizations and businesses that believed in them, including the Fort Atkinson Community Foundation, Jefferson Community Foundation, Lake Mills Community Foundation, Watertown Community Foundation, Daybreak Foods Inc. of Lake Mills, the Escape Teen Center of Fort Atkinson, Highlights Media and the School District of Jefferson.
“I think this is phenomenal,” Gang said. “I get a little teary eyed watching it, to see what these students have done.”
Tammy Foerster, a high school social worker in Watertown who lives in Fort Atkinson, said that she has been with Jefferson County Connections for many years, and she is very proud of this project.
“To see four different schools come together, to get these kids who didn’t know each other coordinated and working together, it was just great,” Foerster said. “I can’t imagine how it could have turned out better.”