Two years ago, William escaped the violence of his native Central American country and arrived in the United States to join his mother.
But his first day at a Sylmar school was not what he hoped for.
“I went to the bathroom and some kids offered me drugs,” he recalled.
When William refused the offer, the group of kids teased and threatened him.
He went and told his mother, who complained about this to the school. But instead of helping, it made matters worse.
The next day, William said, the same five kids who had offered him the drugs were waiting for him before school started.
“They beat me,” said William, who did not want to give out his last name.
The threats and attacks became constant, and no one seemed to help him.
“I felt they hated me. They beat me and attacked me,” the 13-year-old said.
Eventually, for “his safety”, his parents placed him into another school in Van Nuys where he was able to finish the seventh grade.
But when William returned to the same Sylmar school for the eighth grade, the problems continued. Once again his parents brought the bullying issue to the attention of the school officials, asking them for a transfer. The family was denied.
William stopped going to school for fear of the attacks.
It wasn’t until William and his parents went to the San Fernando Valley Community Mental Health Center in Van Nuys that Los Angeles Unified School District Board Member Kelly Gonez was contacted. She interceded on their behalf and the school agreed to transfer him.
William’s experience exemplifies the bullying students suffer at schools, a problem that exists at many campuses and is hard to identify, divulge and correct.
Many of the victims of bullying are afraid to tell their parents and teachers about it for fear of reprisals from the bullies.
“Snitches get stitches,” is a common saying in many area middle schools.
According to Tim Ryder, CEO of the mental health center, bullying — defined as unwanted, aggressive harassment — is more prevalent today than ever before.
And not just in schools.
“Bullying is everywhere in our society. From the highest corridors of power in Washington to the halls of every schools and it’s time to rise up to stop it,” Ryder said.
Statistics show that 1 in 3 students in grades 6-12 are going to be victims of bullying.
But students don’t have to live under the threat of bullies.The mental health center is encouraging them to rise up against it and they’re making it easier for students to denounce it.
Last Saturday, Sept. 29, the Northridge Fashion Center turned into a “bully free zone” as the mental health center unveiled an anti-bullying campaign that includes a telephone hotline, and webpage for students being bullied or parents concerned about bullying. A chat line is in the process of being designed and will be live soon.
The campaign, launched at the start of the National Bullying Prevention Month, has as the theme of “Be A Hero — Rise Up Against Bullying.” The 24/7 hotline number is (866) BeAHero (232-4376) and the website address is 866BeAHero.com.
Counselors are available live to talk on the phone on a 24-hour basis. In-person advocacy, as well as educational, informational programs and resources are available for students, parents and teachers.
The service is completely anonymous and free.
“You are not alone. We take bullying very seriously. And with the launch of this program, kids and parents and teachers have a place to turn to if they are being bullied or are concerned about bullying,” said Jennifer Calderon, Assistant Director for Transitional Youth & Family Support Services at the center.
Ryder, the Center’s CEO, also noted that “there is hope. When bystanders intervene, bullying stops in 10 seconds.”
The hotline, which covers the Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, hopes to become that “bystander” to put an end to bullying.
“This campaign is critical not only for our young people,
but also for all the adults who care about them,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.
People like Ronnie Veliz, a mental health counselor at the center and is one of the persons ready to help after answering those calls about bullying.
Veliz said he knows firsthand what bullying does to a person. He shared that it was his own father who bullied him from the age of 7 because of his gender.
“I experienced homophobia and transphobia at home,” said Veliz, who identifies as transgender.
“No child should ever be ashamed because of his gender, sex orientation, immigration status or color of their skin,” he said.
That’s why Veliz is for “helping families who call desperately looking for help” and “fighting for every kid and family to advocate for them.”
Like he did in the case of William, who is now attending a school he likes and getting ahead.
William says he finally feels welcome in this country.