VINCENNES, Ind. (AP) — Sporting a highlighter-yellow “ReACT to Bullying” T-shirt and standing beneath a projection slide-show about bullying, Matt Hart gave the students gathered in the South Knox Middle/High School auditorium a disclaimer.
“Everything you’re about to hear is real,” he said. “The biggest impact I can have on you is to be real. There are going to be some things happening in this room that you’re going to remember.”
After taking a deep breath, he continued.
“His name was Brian,” Hart began.
And with that, his audience was hooked.
For the next hour, during his 96th speaking engagement so far this year, the former Gibson Southern High School teacher and theater director shared with students his personal experience with being bullied and what he has experienced since he started presenting his “reACT to bullying” message.
For several years during junior high and high school, Hart explained, the same bully tormented him endlessly with taunts about his weight and constant harassment. The two were in the same three sports together and sometimes when Hart was tying his baseball cleats, Brian would saunter by and walk on Hart’s fingers with his own cleated feet.
“I couldn’t get away from him,” Hart said. “I know what the side of the locker feels like against my face — I still have a scar — and I wish someone would have stood up in front of me and my entire school and told me what to do, because I did nothing.”
Years later, he set out to be the person who he so needed to hear from during his youth and quit teaching so that he could speak full-time to students in kindergarten through 12th grade about bullying.
With a couple songs mixed in — including a cover of Adam Sandler’s “Lunch Lady Land” that had everyone in the room laughing — Hart outlined what bullying is and what it isn’t. Bullying is meant to inflict harm, happens more than once, and includes a power imbalance between the bully and the target, Hart explained on Wednesday.
But most importantly to South Knox counselor Carrie Staggs, Hart told the students what to do if it happens to them or if they see it happening to someone else.
His “reACT to bullying” message focuses on three things: act, call and tell.
Students must act calm and confident when dealing with a bully, and if that doesn’t work they should “call” on someone for help.
Above all, though, they should “tell” themselves that they aren’t the problem and that if they’re going through bullying, Hart said, it’s not their fault.
“I really liked the part where he talked about the ‘act’ in ‘react.’ You have to empower kids,” Staggs said. “I think sometimes the kids are like a victim, and we don’t want them to be victims — we want them to stand up and act, act confident.
“That’s something I try to talk to my own kids about, and these kids, too.”
Middle/high school assistant principal Matt Toothman hoped students walked away from Hart’s presentation with the motivation to take his advice and run with it.
“I hope they’ll use those three steps he talked about,” Toothman said. “And he talked about what bullying is and what it isn’t, so I hope the kids will learn from that and be able to separate those.”
Toward the end, Hart gave the students a challenge. He called on them to change their school culture and proactively do something against bullying, like saying something kind every day or looking for opportunities to reach out and include someone.
Hart even told the students about a few ways schools where he’s previously spoken have put that challenge into action, such as handing out kind notes or raising money for cancer treatment for a fellow student.
“These were all kids sitting right where you are and they just thought, ‘I’m going to do something kind,'” Hart said. “So why not you?”
While Hart was new to South Knox — he also presented at the elementary school Wednesday afternoon — he’s spoken several times this school year to other schools in Knox County, including Lincoln High School and Rivet Middle-High School.
He also spoke to North Knox students in September and junior/senior high school principal Matt Sandefer said that the student body, like South Knox group, was “completely locked in” to the presentation.
“Matt comes from an educator’s background so he understands how to reach out and grab the attention of our students,” Sandefer said. “Through some of his own personal stories, he shared his story with respect to him but also using humor and songs and integrating videos — I think he hit a lot of those components that really grasp the attention of our kids.
“His interaction with them was really spot-on.”
The North Knox students also took to heart what Hart said during the bullying convocation: The morning after his presentation, Sandefer said that a trio of junior high school students had gotten together to write encouraging and uplifting messages on index cards that they placed on all 600-plus lockers at the school.
“That was inspiring to me, to see our kids take that kind of initiative,” Sandefer said. “I think that says a lot about our kids, but also says a lot about his program.”
Hart noted that one of the most important parts of his message, and one of the main points that he tries to bring home, is what needs to be present in order for something to be considered “bullying.”
“I was in the classroom teaching for over 20 years, I have my master’s in administration, and before I started my presentation, whenever I did research, I couldn’t tell you the three specific things that needed to be going on to be considered bullying,” Hart said after the convocation. “I thought, ‘Well, if I don’t have a clear understanding, then how in the world are most two-, three-, five-year teachers going to know?’
“I want everyone to walk out of there with those three very clear things,” he said. “That’s maybe half the battle.”