Caleb Laieski of Phoenix is working in the mayor’s office for the City of Phoenix and making plans for college. But just a few years ago, Laieski dropped out of school during his sophomore year at Willow Canyon High School in Surprise after enduring daily episodes of bullying.
Laieski recalls being excluded from groups for being different and being gay. He was “depantsed” during P.E., called a “faggot” and nearly run over by students deliberately driving on a sidewalk where he was walking.
While riding the school bus home one day, another student hurled a stream of slurs and swear words at Laieski. “I’m gonna come and stab you,” he said. Laieski believed him.
He remembers talking to a school administrator about the threat. “He told me he knew the kid and was sure something like that would never happen,” recalls Laieski. “My mom just watched everything happen. She didn’t want the drama of getting involved.”
But Laieski’s own experiences, plus the suicide of a close female friend who’d been bullied for things as trivial as wearing mismatched knee-high socks, spurred him to action.
It’s easy to say you’re for bullying prevention. But doing something is another matter. Some sit on the sidelines, convinced they can’t make a difference. Others want to get involved but aren’t sure where to start.
We’ve profiled 11 people in Arizona, including Laieski, who are working to prevent bullying in schools and communities. Perhaps their stories will strike a chord, helping more of us feel more empowered and better equipped to tackle a shared problem that demands shared solutions.
Founder, The Bullying Ends Now
Julia Kordon of Litchfield Park started The Bullying Ends Now after a friend shared news of a bullied North Dakota teen who committed suicide. The 15-year-old sophomore at Arizona Agribusiness & Equine Center gives a talk called “It Ends with Me” in school and church settings to encourage bullied youth to talk with adults.
Founder, Workshops for Youth and Families
Frances Mills-Yerger started a program called Leadership Workshops in 1979 after realizing that challenges facing her children and their friends could be addressed with personal growth and skill-building opportunities. A Scottsdale-based organization called Workshops for Youth and Families grew out of the program in 1999 and continues to promote “keeping good kids good” through workshops that develop personal leadership and resilience by fostering social and relationship skills, self-worth and integrity.
Bridget Pettis, a former Phoenix Mercury basketball player, volunteers with several local non-profits committed to bullying prevention and often speaks publicly about her experience being bullied as a child. Pettis worked with Teen Lifeline in Phoenix to create a video urging youth who feel alone or depressed to reach out for help, and she was honored last year with the organization’s Alfredo J. Molina Community Lifeline Award.
Youth diversity liaison,
City of Phoenix Mayor’s office
Caleb Laieski of Phoenix sent letters to thousands of school administrators, urging them to comply with current protections in the law, and spoke during Arizona legislative hearings for proposed anti-bullying legislation. When he was 16, Laieski traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with legislators about national student non-discrimination legislation. Laieski and fellow LGBT advocates also met with President Obama.
Founder, Severson Sisters Foundation
Carrie Severson of Scottsdale started the Severson Sisters Foundation to provide bullying solutions focused on enhancing self-esteem, developing social skills and fostering healthy sisterhoods in girls ages 7 to 18. Severson Sisters offers personal and group workshops and programs for Girl Scout troops. The foundation is working to fill schools with girls who make good choices and positively influence their peers, creating a “culture shift among girls” that leads to better environments for all students.
Catherine Follestad of Surprise wrote a book called The Itty Bitty Kitty that’s focused on self-worth and friendship after her “tiny and petite” granddaughter was teased because of her size. Follestad reads the book in school and community settings, using it as a vehicle for talking with children about bullying. She’s focused on teaching respect, tolerance and dignity to small children, noting the scarcity of bullying-prevention resources targeted to very young audiences.
Madelaine Adelman, an associate professor of justice and social inquiry in the School of Social Transformation at ASU in Tempe, helped found the Phoenix Chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Now its co-chair, Adelman encourages schools to implement bullying-prevention strategies that create more supportive schools for all youth. Adleman was honored earlier this year with a City of Phoenix Living the Dream Award for what she calls “social change work.”
Co-founder, Motivational Small Talk
Mark Trombino of Gilbert co-founded Motivational Small Talk with Gail Blackburn in 2006. Through 45-minute presentations to schools and conferences, he promotes diversity education, bullying prevention and overcoming life’s obstacles. Trombino, who stands 3’ 3” tall, met Blackburn through a national support group called Little People of America. They’ve spoken at more than 100 schools about the importance of standing up to bullies rather than being a bystander. Trombino’s young daughter also is a little person.
Founder, It’s Good 2B Good
Sandra Zerner of Scottsdale started It’s Good 2B Good in 2002 to help kids recognize the power of doing good. She speaks in school and community settings about ways to deal with peer pressure, encouraging youth to stand up for themselves and others by drawing on their own moral courage. Her book, titled It’s Good 2B Good , tackles bullying prevention through character education that draws out children’s inborn compassion, empathy and kindness.
Dwayne Hartford, an associate artist and playwright-in-residence with Tempe-based theater company Childsplay, wrote a play called “The Bully Pulpit.” It features five high school students involved in a campaign for class president and focuses on standing up for peers instead of being a bystander. “The Bully Pulpit” is included in “The Bully Plays,” a collection of 24 short plays from Dramatic Publishing that can be performed by youth in school and community settings.
Nicole Stanton: A sister’s story
Long before she became “the first lady of Phoenix,” attorney Nicole Stanton was the adoring little sister of Dion. They lived in a small Utah town Stanton describes as “homogenous,” and things got tough for Dion during high school.
“He’d gone to a school board meeting to ask for more art and speech and debate funding,” recalls Stanton, wife of Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. “The football coach told the football players he was trying to take money away from their programs.” Dion got bullied big time—culminating in “a physical assault outside the principal’s office.”
Her parents asked the school what they should do. “Let it go,” suggested school officials. Stanton says they took the school’s advice, a decision they’d come to regret down the road.
“Bullying isn’t something that’s new,” says Stanton. “People are just paying more attention to it now.” The attention is good, Stanton says, when it helps to bring about change. She’s made bullying the “special focus” of her work in Phoenix communities. “I don’t want it to happen to other families,” she says.
Through her initiative Stop Bullying AZ, Stanton has organized an anti-bullying summit for educators, which will take place Oct. 5 at ASU’s Memorial Union in Tempe. The free, daylong event features information aimed at helping both bullied students and those who bully them—plus bystanders who witness bullying taking place. Sessions will explore bullying-prevention best practices, bullying-related laws and legislation, school policies on bullying, ways to report and track bullying incidents, successful national and local programs, cyberbullying and more. Stanton’s goals for the summit include creating a shared definition of bullying and creating a statewide online network of bullying prevention resources.
The Stantons have two children, 5-year-old Trevor and 2-year-old Violet, and have already talked to their son about what it means to be a bully or a bystander. Sadly, Nicole’s brother didn’t live long enough to meet his nephew and niece. Dion “came out as gay” after going to college and died in 1991 of AIDS-related complications, says Stanton. “At that time, it was a death sentence.”
Stanton says some people think bullying prevention is purely an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) issue. But she’s talked with parents of kids bullied for reasons ranging from being fat to having cancer. “This is an across-the-board problem,” says Stanton. “I don’t think any child should have to experience bullying.”