‘The power of one’

Sue Kraft, Lifestyles Editor
District 15 State Sen. Dave Oehlke, Rep. Curt Hofstad and Rep. Dennis Johnson (on left) met with the Devils Lake students as they visited the capitol.

Since the beginning of the school year, the students at Central Middle School have been learning about bullying and the “power of one.”

For eighth grader Neil Haahr, the message hit home.

Haahr, who admits being bullied when he was younger, said he was once suicidal and while he has moved past the low point in his life, he feels very passionate about the proposed bullying bill.

Earlier this week Haahr and two fellow Student Council members testified before the legislature. They traveled to Bismarck with school social workers Paula Bartel and Jane Adams. Jake Wateland and the remaining members of the Student Council (about 20 students) also made the trip to show their support.

“It's all because of Neil,” said Veranna Bauske, another student who gave testimony in Bismarck.

The students had been studying bullying, when the eighth grade Student Council members held a demonstration for their fellow students, using water, dish soap and pepper. Bauske explained that when the soap was placed on the pepper, the pepper disappeared.

“It's the 'power of one,'” explained Bartel. “It symbolizes how one person can stop bullying.”

Haahr said he had thought about writing a letter to legislators about how bullying should be illegal and punishable by law. Some students, he noted, are not intimidated by their parents or school officials and the punishments are not severe enough to deter their actions.

If their actions were punishable by law, he noted, it might make bullies more apprehensive.

Haahr circulated a petition to garner support for the House Bill 1465 and gathered 263 signatures. He then wrote testimony to present to the legislators.

CMS Principal Josh Johnson was so impressed with his letter that he was asked to read it in front of the student body — a feat that was much scarier than speaking in front of the legislators, he said.

Haahr received a standing ovation from his fellow students for his moving speech.

The testimony

Haahr's testimony reads, in part, “Kids just don't care if they get in trouble. If all of a sudden kids are getting into trouble with the law because they are bullying, then that would send a message to them, 'Hmm, maybe I shouldn't do this.' I believe that would stop them.”

He added, “I have been on the other side of being bullied and it's not a fun thing. I have been suicidal, but I was a strong person and came back. Some kids just don't have the motivation and will to come back, while others just feel hopeless, but if we make a law, kids will and should know that people are here for them and they should be the better person and come back from being suicidal.”

He said students should be able to come to school without the fear of being bullied and if they are faced with bullying, they should know their tormentor will face a new level of punishment.

Bauske, a seventh grader, said she was also bullied when she first moved to Devils Lake.

“I was a 'new kid,'” she told legislators. “I was made fun of and felt like I was left out of many groups. I was also bullied physically. I have moved on from those experiences, but still think about them sometimes. Those memories can still hurt.”

Bauske said that when visiting with some of her classmates she learned that many had been bullied or seen others being bullied, but felt powerless to help.

“One of my best friends was bullied just last week,” she continued. “He reported what happened and the school staff took care of it, but he was very depressed. He said he wasn't just sad about what happened... he was also scared. I am here today to represent all those students who have been bullied, those who have witnessed it and those who want it to stop.”

Student Council president, eighth grader Parker Hoey, was the third student to testify.

She told legislators of the “Bully Boxes” at the school, where students can write their concerns and “the power of one” lesson, which has been taught throughout the school.

“You may be thinking that those two things alone would put a huge impact on bullying, but not really,” she said. “It's made a difference, but not enough to make these kids realize bullying is wrong.”

Hoey said she had visited with a number of students in the school and found that more than 75 percent of the fifth graders she interviewed had been bullied.

“One of the sixth grade students we interviewed really made a difference to me,” she said. “He told us that 'bullying is like being murdered from the inside.' He told us that these bullies made him feel like there's 'nothing good in life, so why live any longer?' and several kids in that group agreed.”

Hoey said being on Student Council has really opened her eyes to bullying.

“No one in junior high should have to feel suicidal thoughts or be scared to come to school,” she said.

All three students agreed they felt good after giving their speeches in Bismarck. But, Haahr noted, there was one thing that bothered him.

“The part that hurt me was there were people that opposed the law,” he said. He said some of the opposition said bullying has been around forever and will always be around and others thought the bill would create more issues if passed.

Right now

Central Middle School — and the other Devils Lake Public Schools — are not waiting for a law to take a proactive approach to bullying.

In addition to the steady stream of educational material and the recently added 'Bully Boxes,' administrators are trying to keep on top of the bullying situation.

Hartel said regardless of what they are working on, when a situation arises concerning bullying, they make it a priority to resolve it right away.

“I honestly believe Mr. Johnson is doing a great job,” said Bauske. “He takes it very seriously.”

Hoey agreed, “When I went to Mr. Johnson it was resolved the same day. That's what I appreciate most about him.”

“Dr. Swiontek has also been very supportive of it,” added Adams. “It takes everybody to make change.”

Bauske said she has seen bullying decrease in the middle school, but she thinks making it punishable by law would make an even bigger impact.

“There are some things that need to be taken to a different level, more than teachers and administrators — like from fuchsia to neon green,” she said lowering her hand, then raising her arm above her head.

But, until then, the students are reaching out to those closest to them.

“The one thing I wish kids would come to understand is I really don't care what people think about me at the end of the day,” Haahr said.

Instead, he noted, it's who you know you are inside.

“I wish more kids would think that way,” he said.