From victim to mentor: Woman takes bullying story on the road

Twenty-two-year-old Brianna Poster is out of school, but the memories of being bullied are still fresh.

"I would come home from school with bruises from being kicked, hand print marks on my face from being slapped and there was the infamous run-and slam-Bri's-head-into-a-locker day."

Eventually, she learned to deal with bullies - by avoiding them completely.

"I would eat lunch in the hallway so I didn't have to deal with lunch. I kind of avoided it," she recalled. "I have no real understanding of why [they picked on me]. But pretty much I'd take it. I wouldn't do anything against to lash out."

A recently released study of more than 43,000 students by the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics shows 47 percent of students admit to being bullied, teased or taunted in a way that seriously upset them within the past year.

Nearly one in four students say they do not feel safe at school, according to the study, which gathered surveys from public and private high schools in 2009 and 2010.

"If the saying, 'sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never harm me' was ever true, it certainly is not so today," said Michael Josephson, who founded the institute, in a news release. "Insults, name calling, relentless teasing and malicious gossip often inflict deep and enduring pain."

The Josephson Institute, a non-profit group, administers the national Character Counts! program, which partners with schools, communities and various non-profit organizations to provide character education to youth across the country.

"The internet has intensified the injury," Josephson said. "What's posted on the internet is permanent and it spreads like a virus. There's no refuge."

New Jersey Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D) agrees. She sponsored the "Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights" introduced in the New Jersey legislature on Oct. 25. The bill, which has received bipartisan support, would require public school teachers to be trained on recognizing, reporting and handling harassment and bullying.

"It's become a very serious issue," she said. "Bullying used to happen between kids on the playground; now it follows you home. It's all over the internet."

Huttle's bill would create school safety teams designed to foster and maintain positive environments in the school. The bill would designate a "week of respect" every October during which students would receive age-appropriate instruction on preventing harassment, intimidation and bullying.

Schools also would have to report incidents of violence and bullying to the board of education twice a year. The report would be used to grade schools on their efforts to identify intimidation and bullying.

Huttle, whose district sits near the bridge where Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death in September after his roommates broadcast an intimate encounter with another man live on the internet, says the current laws on the books do not go far enough. She wanted to sponsor "comprehensive legislation" to confront the problem.

"When kids witness things and they feel cool that a bully is bullying a victim, they enable the bullying," she said. "When you stop enabling the bullies and you let the other kids know you'll have a zero tolerance policy, it's a step toward eradicating the problem."

She hopes the legislation will serve as a model for federal lawmakers.

"States are the laboratories for democracy," she said. "I'm hoping New Jersey will move forward and be a leader in this."

Huttle hopes to push the legislation through and get New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to sign it into state law by the end of the year. The bill is almost guaranteed to pass the legislature, she said, with 43 sponsors in the New Jersey Assembly. Only 41 votes are needed to pass.

A spokesperson for the assemblywoman said the bill almost has enough sponsors to pass the Senate, with 17 sponsors and only 21 votes needed.

While Huttle wants to change the culture of schools by educating teachers and students and creating accountability, Poster just wants to serve as a role model.

She travels full-time with a Camfel Productions, a company that puts on interactive multimedia presentations laced with current music and movie clips at school assemblies. The videos teach fairness, self-esteem and acceptance of others.

Before and after the video presentations, Poster gets a few brief moments to share with the kids. She encourages students to use their struggles to rise above the storms of life.

"Sometimes I'll just talk about overcoming obstacles," she said. "Lately, I've been telling kids, when an eagle senses a storm coming, it uses the wind to get above the storm cell, but it has to go through the storm cell to rise above it."

The videos and her comments appear to be getting through.

"I'll watch the crowd and I've been able to see different kids. Some leave the room with tears in their eyes or they'll leave the room hugging."

She's also channeling those hurtful experiences as a kid to make a connection with students who feel like they don't fit in and give them hope to move forward.

"I'm realizing that I have those experiences, whether they were good or bad, and whether they were my choice or not, I have the knowledge and experience and I can say, 'Hey, I've been there, I survived, I can help,' even if it's just a couple of words to a student after a show."

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