When Walter Meyer attended high school, the Pittsburgh native did whatever he could to blend in. As a senior, he was 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed less than 120 pounds.
Due to his stature, he stood out like a sore thumb.
Often in high school, standing out leads to consequences from fellow students.
Melanie Witkowski of Chautauqua Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Council leads and anti-bullying workshop with teens at The Gateway Center during a recent event. She emphasized the importance of bystander intervention in stopping bullying, and advising teens to be assertive when confronting bullies.
P-J photos by Scott Shelters
Jerry Ackerman, left, led a panel discussion with other experts at The Gateway Center. School officials and community members sat in for the question and answer session.
Experts believe most bullying victims look or act differently than their peers; they don't quite fit in with everyone else.
"I was an easy target," Meyer said.
He chose to be an average student. He didn't want to be bullied, and he felt the smart kids received that type of treatment.
Decades later, Meyer thinks he missed opportunities in his younger years due to that fear.
Since high school, he has tried to make up for lost time. He embraced his writing skills as a Penn State student and later became a published author and traveling speaker.
"It was a great feeling to be able to share my talents with the world," said Meyer. "I wonder what more I would've done in college if I wasn't afraid to be out and be who I was."
Meyer accepted he was gay and now works as a full-time writer and consultant, speaking frequently on bullying. His most recent book, "Rounding Third," follows the story of two 17-year-old baseball players who don't fit in with their teammates. The book's popularity led Meyer to several cities, including Jamestown, where he spoke at JCC on bullying in October.
When Meyer speaks, he advises parents to teach children basic respect and to treat them decently, noting kids often become bullies because of how they're treated at home.
Jerry Ackerman, who was the keynote speaker at The Gateway Center's inaugural anti-bullying event recently, believes communication can prevent bullying.
He and his family eat as many meals together as possible. It allows them time to talk about each other's days. Many families aren't doing that.
"I think some parents are afraid to communicate with their kids because they want to be their friends," said Ackerman, who speaks internationally on the subject. "You brought them into this world; you need to help them get through this world and not just be an advocate for what they're doing."
Ackerman said the only way for parents to have quality time with their kids is to have "quantity time" with them, noting the more involved parents are with their children, the more likely they will be to prevent bullying.
At The Gateway Center's event, Ackerman spoke for school administrators, students, parents and community members on prevention tactics.
"A lot of times, when I do a parent seminar, the ones who come aren't the ones who need to," he said.
Some parents don't believe their children would ever bully or be bullied. Without hard evidence to the contrary or sound communication with their children, bullying could go unnoticed.
"Back decades ago, if I got in trouble at school, my parents would say, 'You're going to get it twice as bad at home.' Now a lot of parents are the first ones at the school door saying, 'My kid can't do that; he's an angel,'" Ackerman said.
Through Meyer's research and speaking experiences, he has reinforced the belief that those who stand out, those who are different, receive the bulk of insults.
Although much of his work focuses on the bullying of gays, Meyer learned how another group suffers from something similar while speaking to the San Diego School Board recently.
"The one member of the school board said he teaches in a school with a large Filipino-American population. He was saying those kids get picked on for being Filipino," Meyer said. "It's pretty much the same issue, regardless of who's being picked on; it's still wrong."
Ackerman and Meyer believe adolescents suffer from bullying more often than any other demographic. Children struggling with their own insecurities tend to pick on others to elevate themselves.
According to figures provided to the anti-bullying event's attendees, nearly 160,000 U.S. children skip school due to fear of being bullied each year.
Thanks to cyber bullying, they now have the same fears when they log onto social networking sites or flip open their cellphones.
"Text bullying is huge. Outside of verbal bullying, it's the biggest way people bully," Ackerman said. "It's easy to do; it's anonymous. It is hard to detect as far as who sent it."
Throughout his years of familiarity with the topic, Meyer has seen a lot stay the same, but he said bullying tactics have changed.
"One older gentleman who read my book said he was glad I used the word 'iPod' on Page 1 because it showed people this was happening in the present. He said it sounded so much like what he went through in high school in the 1950s," Meyer explained. "When I was in school, I could run home and hide from those people, but now if you go home and you turn on Facebook or Twitter or your cellphone, I think there's less of a chance to hide from it."
At The Gateway Center, a panel of bullying experts, including Ackerman, advised parents to print off evidence of cyber bullying. Ackerman went as far as to say children of a certain age shouldn't have social-networking accounts, adding parents should have access to any of their children's profiles.
BULLYING IN THE WORKPLACE
Stereotypical bullies look more like the cast of "Glee" than that of "The Office," but experts believe workplace bullying happens often.
It doesn't happen as much online, and it isn't nearly as obvious as high-school teasing.
"If you shoulder-checked somebody as you're walking down the hall, like what happened to me every day in high school, they would fire you," Meyer said. "You can do other little things to intimidate people and to put them down. It's the thinking that if I put you down that will advance me. In reality, it doesn't work that way."
According to Ackerman, 48 percent of adults say they've been bullied at work. They experience teasing and sarcasm, suffering the consequences of an economic and social power struggle.
"If half the adults are getting bullied, they're passing that down to their kids, who are doing the bullying at school. The 52 percent who are bullying, they're not turning that off when they get home; they're doing that to their kids," Ackerman said. "The kids at schools are doing what they've seen at home at school. It's very cyclical."
Bullying can start sooner than middle or high school. Ackerman has had to be proactive, addressing children as young as 4 or 5 years old.
"I just did a presentation to kindergarteners a couple weeks ago. It was the same message just done a little differently so they could understand it," he said.
MAKING IT STOP
Ackerman served as the keynote speaker for two sessions during Thursday's anti-bullying event. In the morning, he and a group of panelists interacted with school officials and community members, answering questions and speaking on the various types of verbal and cyber bullying.
In the evening, Ackerman and others led discussions and exercises on bullying prevention with parents and teenagers.
Ackerman offered a three-step plan for child and adult bullying victims.
"Remove, report and reach," he said. "Remove yourself from the situation as best you can. Even though it's not your fault, remove yourself. Report it to somebody who can be your advocate. Reach and find friends who can help insulate you and help encourage you through it all. I think the same thing can be said for adults."
City of Jamestown Department of Youth Services Director Vickye James and the other organizers of the anti-bullying event stressed the importance of bystanders.
Three types of people live in the bullying realm: bullies, victims and bystanders, who can choose to report or ignore what they see.
"We wanted to make the focus on the 85 percent of kids who just stand by," James said. "Statistics show that when they get involved, 50 percent of the time bullying ceases. Sometimes, they don't know what to do. They want to say something, but they're scared. They just don't know how."
Melanie Witkowski, of Chautauqua Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Council, led an evening role-playing workshop with teens on how to combat bullying. She advised them to use an assertive, not aggressive or passive, tone of voice when confronting an antagonist. Using a confident-looking posture could also help.
"I'm giving them tips on defending them, but still being respectful and polite," she said. "I think it helps to just give them the opportunity to act it out with their eye contact, their body language and their tone of voice. Once they practice it a couple of times, they start to become more comfortable doing it. That's why we think the role-playing is really effective."
Witkowski advises schools and even parents to implement the role-playing method.
The City of Jamestown Youth Services Department, Chautauqua County Youth Bureau, Chautauqua Tapestry, CASAC, The Gateway Center, Jamestown Public Schools and the United Way partnered to make the anti-bullying event happen.
With a positive turnout for Thursday's sessions, James and fellow organizer Patti Yokom, of the Chautauqua County Youth Bureau, would like to make the anti-bullying event an annual Gateway Center function.
"I'm excited. I think this will work," James said. "We had a diversity of school people here." School personnel from Chautauqua County schools and beyond attended the morning session. Yokom, citing recent teen suicides in the county, hopes the work of the various organizations will save lives in the future. However, she doesn't believe bullying will ever come to a total halt.
"As much as we want to protect our kids, it's going to happen. They need the coping skills to deal with the bullying and all kinds of struggles in life," she said. "It's not always easy being an adult or being a kid, but we can teach them it gets easier."