Jim Planck
Hudson-Catskill Newspapers
Friday, December 9, 2011

GREENPORT — The Human Service Class at Columbia-Greene Community College held “Stand Up to Bullying Day” on Thursday, a day-long seminar focused on raising awareness about bullying and its consequences, including suicide.

The topic for the six-hour session had been selected by the class members — now in the final semester for their Associates of Arts degrees — as their end-of-year project, and accordingly featured guest speakers specifically knowledgeable on the subject — Columbia County survivor parent Joan Spencer, of “Jeffrey’s Journey,” who lost her son Jeffrey Taylor, Senator James Seward, a consistent sponsor and advocate for anti-bullying legislation in the Senate, and Windows for Opportunity Executive Director and founder Hal Eisenberg, whose metropolitan area organization provides school, art, and community-based programs to empower youth.

Instructor Dawn Defino said the class has been anticipating the day for some time.

“They’ve been working on this project since the first week of school,” said Defino.

“This is the fourth year we’ve been doing this as a class project,” she said, noting that topics in other years focused on issues such as Stop DWI and domestic abuse.

“The students do everything,” said Defino.

“They research the topic, they research the resource in the community, and they select the speakers,” she said.

“This is the capstone project for the Human Service students before they graduate,” said Defino.

Spencer was the first speaker and told those present, “Three days into his junior year, Jeffrey lost his battle with depression, anxiety, and bullying on Tuesday, September 9th, 2008, at approximately 7:00 in the morning.”

Spencer spoke of Jeffrey’s favorites — the people and things he loved most — and also how children’s fears at school include fear for their physical well-being, adding that one of the problems is that not just peers can turn their heads and do nothing, but there are adults who do so also.

“I didn’t find out the severity of the bullying my son Jeffrey endured until after he died,” she said.

Spencer said that early age professional consideration of Jeffrey’s sadness failed to determine anything, so that academic interventions weren’t put in place for Jeffrey until the 6th grade.

“However,” she said, “this didn’t address the social issues that Jeffrey faced everyday going to school.”

Spencer explained that over the next four years Jeffrey attempted suicide twice, during which time he was both an inpatient and an outpatient of a children’s mental health facility, changed schools from Taconic Hills to Hudson for residence with his father, and was given medical prescriptions — all of which she said never addressed root causes.

Reciting the children’s poem of Humpty Dumpty, Spencer said the finality of that poem is how it is when someone commits suicide.

“Jeffrey shot himself,” she said. “Life, as I knew it, was gone forever.”

“I had to find a way where I could still fill the role of being Jeffrey’s mom,” she said, “and I found that with ‘Jeffrey’s Journey — Be the Change — Suicide is Preventable and so is Bullying.’”

“A very clear and concise message, and how true,” said Spencer, “(as) 90 percent of people who complete suicide have mental illness — mainly depression — that is either under-diagnosed or undertreated, and in Jeffrey’s case, severely undertreated.”

“There is a lesson to be learned in Jeffrey’s death and in all the suicide deaths of kids you see who were bullied and abused,” she said, “and that is the importance of accepting others and respecting that we are all different, and with those differences we can bring much to the table of life.”

“Words are powerful,” Spencer said. “Use them to elevate others, reach out to others, not to tear one another down.”

Spencer also said that technology has eliminated much of the face-to-face aspect of communication between people.

“That is why it is so easy to mean and say disparaging things about others (when using it),” she said.

“You cannot see the hurt on their face as you deliberately give them another blow to their spirit.”

“Mental illness and bullying are public health issues,” Spencer said. “They not only affect families, but society as a whole.”

“In our pain we grow, we seek, we grieve,” she said, “but most of all, we love.”

“Never forget the love you have inside you,” Spencer said. “You can do great things, especially if they are done in love.”

“Don’t wait for ‘someday’ to do it,” she said. “Someday is now, right now.”

Spencer said success in life is not about how much money you can amass, but helping people.

“Look inside yourself,” she said.

“What do you see? Who do you see?” she asked, “and is it who you want to be?”

“Success is about how many people’s lives that you can touch and help along the way,” she said.

“Don’t miss the opportunity to live a life rich with peace, joy, and contentment that can only come from,” she said — quoting Gandhi — “‘being the change you want to see in the world.’”

On hand with Spencer were three American Foundation for Suicide Prevention “Remembrance Quilts” which she brought to display, with each square designed by family members and loved ones in memory of a suicide victim.

Seward was the next speaker, and told seminar attendees, “It’s a very important and significant issue, and whenever we can raise awareness and build support for anti-bullying, that’s a good thing.”

“There was a time and an age,” Seward said, “when (it) was viewed as kids being kids,” adding that such social perspective is now long gone.

“The severity, the manner, in which it is carried out, and the tragic end to such confrontations,” Seward said, “has really demonstrated the need to take action.”

“It’s much more serious than kids being kids,” he said.

Citing tragedies in his own home town of Oneonta, Seward, like Spencer, noted that technology can be misused.

“The advanced technology has created a whole new platform for bullying that doesn’t shut down when the school day ends,” Seward said.

“It goes on 24/7,” he said.

Seward said he was pleased that the Senate has been a leader in working to provide a legislative solution, adding that in 2010 the Dignity For All Students Act — also known as the Dignity Act — was signed into law, and will take effect on July 1, 2012.

“It bans harassment,” he said, “based on anything — color, race, sexual orientation, anything — on school grounds or at school events.”

The text of the law is truly wide in scope, with the State Education Department website noting that it covers, “but (is) not limited to, different races, weights, national origins, ethnic groups, religions, religious practices, mental or physical abilities, sexual orientations, gender identity or expression, and sexes.”

It also, says the website, “requires Boards of Education to include language addressing The Dignity Act in their codes of conduct.”

Seward said it also requires districts to report incidents to SED.

“But there was an omission,” Seward said, “the cyber-bullying aspect,” adding that it was attempted to be rectified last year by a bipartisan effort in the Senate which was passed, but was then in a package of bills that the Assembly did not take up.

Seward noted that fellow Sen. Stephen Saland, Columbia County’s representative in the Senate, was “a prime sponsor” of that legislation.

“He’s been a leader on this,” Seward said.

Seward said the new bill is intended to expand upon The Dignity Act, and is called The Law to Encourage Acceptance of all Differences, or LEAD for short.

Seward said it includes prohibitions on cyber-bullying students not only at school, but at home as well, and that it would require all school employees to report instances to a principal or superintendent, among other provisions.

“I’m hoping,” said Seward, “we can revisit this effort in 2012,” and asked those present to support the effort.

“Help us strengthen the laws,” he said.

Seward said one beneficial law that has been adopted is the Cyber-Crime Youth Rescue Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June this year.

The law allows first-time youthful offenders of teen sexting, who were not aware it is a crime and with no intent to commit one, to have a chance to get the charge dismissed upon completing a special educational program.

“This (teen sexting) is serious business,” he said. “There are ramifications far and wide.”

“So educating our youth and teens about the risks of these activities is an important first step,” he said.

“There’s a lot happening legislatively at the State (level),” Seward said, but added that the social force for change is equally, if not more so, of need.

“We need to take strong action, and the laws are one thing,” he said, “but just spreading the word — just saying this isn’t right — this isn’t cool — this is wrong — that’s a very, very powerful force.”

Eisenberg, from Windows for Opportunity, was the third speaker, and explained that his downstate organization’s curriculum-building background includes programs on bullying.

He said that since 1997 he has worked “one-on-one with over 75,000 kids,” most recently completing a curriculum series in Africa.

“I don’t know everything,” Eisenberg said, adding that his purpose was not to present a lecture.

“I’m here to have a conversation with you,” he said.

He began by asking what topics or questions they would like discussed, and received a gamut in return, including, why do people bully, why do so many people always say after-the-fact they didn’t know anything about a suicide coming, why won’t children tell someone, and how do you help someone who’s being bullied.

Eisenberg also stressed that he wanted to create a safe environment for the discussions, adding, “What’s said here, stays here,” which is where the workshop will be left.

Earlier in the day, Cairo parent Mary Wickson — with her daughter, sixth-grader Dayna Wickson standing beside her — read aloud Dayna’s poem, “Never Saw It Coming,” which is about bullying and the true aspects of friendship, and which was printed in the day’s program flyer.

Also on hand for the day were representatives from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Columbia-Greene Domestic Violence Program, and the REACH Center.

The day also included a late afternoon balloon release by those who signed the pledge to support anti-bullying, plus a website display on cyber-bullying, an anti-bullying video, and posters of suicide victims drawn by Human Service Class members.

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