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Cyber-bullying: The right script helps capture student interest

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: If you want to get kids’ attention when it comes to bullying -- or anything at all -- it helps to understand the lingo.

Seventeen-year-old Dasia Vence, who plays popular, mean girl Gwyneth in “Winning Juliet,” Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ upcoming educational play about cyber-bullying, has the 4-1-1 on popular terminology.

“Sneak-dissing,” Vence begins. “Like if you got a new haircut and I put on Twitter, ‘That haircut is gross,’ then you know it’s about you but I didn’t say that.

“Low-key hating,” she continues. “Like, if your friend is like, ‘Do you like my outfit?’ and you’re like, Hmmm ... it’s OK.”

“Like damning with faint praise,” festival education director Chris Limber chimes in.

Limber is immersed in the world of teen cyber-bullying right now, as actors rehearse for the April 25 debut of “Winning Juliet,” which includes four public performances. In co-writing the play, Limber sought stories from local teenagers about their experiences.

Some can speak to both sides of the issue, having bullied others and been bullied, including Vence, a savvy, confident junior at Clyde Miller Career Academy. With the resignation of someone who’s endured and survived the rigors of adolescent conflict, she sums up what it’s like to be an American teenager today.

“It’s not like ‘High School Musical’ and dancing on tables like it’s portrayed to be,” Vence says. “It’s really tough.”

‘Part of their culture’

Ten area high school students and four adults make up the cast of “Winning Juliet.” The plays’ cyber communications -- Instagram images, Facebook posts, Tweets -- are projected so that the audience can experience them along with the characters. These include Julie, a new girl at school, whose classmates Gwyneth and Tyson immediately welcome her to town with a version of low-key hating.

“To start, we’ll tell you where you can get clothes,” Tyson offers.

“Maybe a haircut,” Gwyneth adds. “Too bad you can’t go do that really fast.”

Julie poses a threat to Gwyneth when they both want the lead female role in “Romeo and Juliet.” But Julie’s future at the school is in question after someone creates a fake Facebook page in her name and posts “I hate gay people.” After Julie’s suspended, she auditions via YouTube, staging Juliet’s death. Rumors fly fast that the scene is her actual recorded suicide.

Cyber-bullying is “an incredibly hot topic,” according to Shakespeare Festival executive director Rick Dildine, especially with smart phones being a ubiquitous accessory among students.

Ninety-two percent of kids ages 10-18 have cell phones, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center. Nearly 94 percent surf the internet for school work, 80 percent use Facebook, 74 percent have email and 38 percent send and receive instant messages.

“It’s part of their culture,” Dildine says. “And some of the stories hit very close to home, particularly here in Missouri where we had the death of a young girl played out in an online prank.”

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Meier has addressed hundreds of school assemblies as part of her foundation’s campaign and talked to many students individually. She, too, understands the importance of using effective language.

“The kids today are sick and tired of hearing the words ‘bullying’ and ‘cyber-bullying.’ They literally roll their eyes,” Meier says. “What we have to do is say, ‘How many of you deal with drama or conflict?’ and then they raise their hands.”

A few practical steps toward helping bullied kids stand out in Meier’s mind as she explores the topic.

  1. Parents, teachers and administrators must really listen to the students’ stories of bullying and how it makes them feel.
  2. Parents of bullied children should insist on meeting with school officials.
  3. Kids need to learn how to speak up for other students.

“If you ask a kid, ‘Would you rather have a parent or a teacher or a student stand up for you?’ they overwhelming say, ‘Another student,’” Meier says.
Meier applauds Shakespeare Festival’s efforts to bring the topic of cyber-bullying to the stage and sees possible opportunities for collaboration. The problem is immense, she realizes. But progress begins on an individual level.

“If we can go in and help one child, and they possibly help another child and we have that small ripple effect, then I know we are making change,” Meier says.

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