Several hundred people from across Cass County gathered at Panther Stadium in Peculiar on a Friday night, but not for football.
By BETHANY BASHIOUM
Special to The Star
Instead, parents and their children gathered in the bleachers at the Raymore-Peculiar High School football stadium earlier this month to address an epidemic facing students in schools all over the nation.
Kirk Smalley, founder of Stand for the Silent, an anti-bullying awareness campaign, gave a serious, in-your-face plea to students and parents to put an end to the vicious cycle of bullying.
On May 13, 2010, Smalley’s 11-year-old son, Ty Smalley, of Perkins, Okla., committed suicide after being bullied and harassed at school.
Since his son’s death, Smalley and his wife, Laura, have shared their family’s story with more than 716,000 children and teens through the film, “Bully,” and at speaking events, like the one held at Ray-Pec, recounting Ty’s last day of life.
“On this particular day, this kid who has been picking on him for over two years decided to come up and start picking on him again,” Smalley said.
Having enough of the bullying, Ty chose to retaliate.
“He retaliated and he got caught,” Smalley said.
After a three-day suspension was handed out, Laura took her son home and told him to do his homework and chores.
When his mom came home that afternoon, she was horrified to find that her child had shot himself in their bedroom.
“Turned out my boy didn’t do his homework. He didn’t do his chores. Instead, my baby killed himself on our bedroom floor,” Ty’s father said.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in children, behind car accidents.
Smalley’s campaign, Stand for the Silent, was instigated in 2010 by a group students from Oklahoma State University in Oklahoma City after they heard the Smalleys’ story.
Stand for the Silent exists as a platform to allow the Smalleys to offer education and tools that will prevent a similar tragedy from happening to another family.
Their mission is to continue to change kids’ lives and bring awareness to bullying and the devastation it causes.
In March 2011, the couple met privately with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in The White House before attending the first-ever White House conference on bullying.
Their story is featured in Director Lee Hirsch’s feature film, “Bully.”
Smalley has also continued to give a fierce talk in hundreds of communities – begging students to take a stand against bullying.
“I will always remember Ty’s huge smile across his face,” recounted one of Ty’s teachers in a book of memories that Smalley shared with attendees.
At the end of his presentation, Smalley led students in the Stand for the Silent pledge:
“From this day forward I promise to respect those around me as well as respect myself.
“I am somebody, and I can make a difference. I can make another feel loved. I can be the helping hand that leads another back to a path of hope and aspiration.
“I will not stand silent as others try to spread hatred through my community. Instead, I pledge to lift up these victims and show them that their lives matter. I will be the change because I am somebody.”
Audra Ayers, school resource officer in the Raymore-Peculiar district, was inspired by Smalley’s words. As a Peculiar police officer, Ayers said, she sees the effects of bullying often.
“His message moved me to tears,” she said. “Bullying is the main problem going on in schools. It’s exclusion, and it’s become a popularity contest...Kids are more worried about their image, popularity and fitting in.”
The event was hosted by the Ray-Pec Community Alliance, a 1½-year-old partnership for community health in Raymore and Peculiar. One of its goals is to reduce violence and substance abuse among young people.
The alliance includes representation from many sectors of the community — including law enforcement, the Raymore-Peculiar School District and the Cass County Juvenile Office, along with mental health and social service agencies.
“We saw through statistics and a survey that we did through the school district that violence was becoming pretty prevalent,” said Gretchen Roth, founder and president of the alliance. “In the future, we hope to have a perfect world, but in the meantime we’re doing something, and I feel like that’s better than doing nothing.”
Through programs, education and alternatives, the alliance plans to reduce the occurrence of destructive behaviors.
“Mr. Smalley’s message is very heavy, but I feel like it’s important for people to know the reality of what your words and actions can potentially do and affect other people,” Roth said. “I hope it inspired people to take action.”
Smalley’s message seemed to resonate with students.
At the more difficult parts of his speech, Smalley used sign language to communicate “I love you” with audience members. He encouraged others to do the same as he spoke.
“It doesn’t just mean, ‘I love you,’” he said. “We use it to say ‘I support you.’ It means, ‘I got your back.’”
Ebony Carter, a 14-year-old Ray-Pec freshman, listened to Smalley with tears in her eyes.
Later in the evening, Carter said she used to be bullied and made fun of because of her weight.
“His message was very enforcing – it was strong and straightforward,” she said. “It’s hard to get help to people who need it.”