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Students speak out about bullying

Students at the Cloquet Area Alternative Education Program brought their "Day of Silence" to a quietly dramatic ending last Thursday, by shredding the hate.

Shred the hate
CAAEP students wrote names they've been called or detailed hurtful experiences and then wordlessly fed the paper into a shredder to "shred the hate." Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com

Students at the Cloquet Area Alternative Education Program brought their "Day of Silence" to a quietly dramatic ending last Thursday, by shredding the hate.

On multi-colored bits of paper, students wrote names they've been called or detailed hurtful experiences and then wordlessly fed the paper into a shredder.

It was the culmination of a day focused on bullying and other discriminating behaviors. Earlier, students had watched the Matthew Shepard story -- based on the true story of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay youth who was murdered in 1998, the victim of an anti-gay hate crime -- then decorated a tree wall mural with stories related to bullying. They met with former Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson -- now district manager for Congressman Rick Nolan -- who shared his own experience of "coming out" to his parents and others, and how being gay has (and has not) affected his life. They watched the animated film, "To This Day," which combines poetry, rap and drawings to tell a compelling story of the often permanent damage inflicted by name-calling.

CAAEP Principal Robbi Mondati said the activities were based on the National Day of Silence, to bring awareness to GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual) individuals -- or anyone with differences -- who have been "silenced" by name-calling, bullying, etc.

"We thought it tied in well with the acceptance of all students and zero tolerance for bullying," Mondati said, explaining that staff tried to broaden the theme to make it about more than sexual orientation, although that was still very much a part of the activities last week.

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Mondati described the 50-some students at the school as an "eclectic mix" of kids who attend CAAEP for a variety of reasons.

"Many of our students are with us because the program is a better fit for them, academically and socially," Mondati said.

The most powerful words came from the students who spoke before the "shredding the hate" exercise.

(Editor's note: Out of respect for their bravery and their privacy, the Pine Journal will share some of those stories, but not identify the students.)

Student X spoke of how excited he was to move to Minnesota, where he and his brothers could be closer to family. That enthusiasm didn't last past his first day of school.

"I was afraid bullying would be an issue," he said, noting that he and his younger brother both have fetal alcohol syndrome, which affects mental function, socialization skills, physical abilities and more. "My younger brother and I both have a speech impediment, but I was more worried about him, because his [impediment] is more intense.

"In the first day, my older brother and I were called to the hallway. There was an ambulance outside. The principal informed us that our younger brother was injured and was going to the hospital. He told us he'd been assaulted by a classmate and found unconscious by the middle school lockers. The doctor said he could have died."

Student X said the bullying started as soon as his brother introduced himself to the class. Because of his speech, some of the students laughed and someone wrote "retard" on the board. Between periods some boys invited him to join them and that's when one of them put him in a choke hold.

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"He was tormented because he was different and because they wanted to get a rise out of him," said Student X. "New students seem to get bullied a lot. Don't let it get to you and talk to others. I've gotten stronger. My message to bullies is, 'Stop it.'"

Student Y talked about being bullied because of his weight. He remembers being bullied in kindergarten. And again in third grade, when he changed schools. Again, he changed schools in sixth grade, and it got even worse.

"It was the weight thing again," Student Y said. "I had people dump their trays on me, throw food at me. I went there half a year and then transferred again. Things were OK for a while, then the bullying started again.

"It almost drove me to suicide, but I couldn't do it," he said. "I had my brothers to think of. I had to go to counseling a lot. Now I try to help people that are being picked on because I know the feeling."

Student Z talked about being beaten by his father at home and picked on by kids at school, and being ignored or not taken seriously by adults he hoped would help him and his brothers.

"I hurt so long, I wondered if I was alive anymore because I felt dead inside," Student Z said. "No joy, no sorrow, no pain. To this day, I feel like the only piece of a puzzle that doesn't fit right.

"It's something you never really get over."

Mondati said she was amazed by the students who spoke.

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"The stories they shared paired with their willingness to be vulnerable -- to share their struggles -- with a room full of their peers, it was very moving," she said.

CAAEP is open to grades 6-12 and accepts students from around Carlton County, as well as McGregor, Hermantown and Proctor. CAAEP offers both general education and special education classes, and small class sizes.

Related Topics: CLOQUETEDUCATION
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