In a conference room at Congregation Beth Shalom, Leawood police officer Randy Wiler stands by a laptop as members of the Sisterhood and Social Action Committee begin filing in.
Lyrics from Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” fill the space as a slide shows up on a projector screen in front of the growing group of women.
“Imagine a world without bullying,” the screen reads.
As the director of the Kansas Bullying Prevention Program, Wiler is here to give the Sisterhood and Social Action Committee a lesson on cyberbullying.
It’s not Wiler’s usual crowd; during the week, he can usually be found in classrooms across Johnson County, teaching sixth-graders lessons from the D.A.R.E. program and training teachers on how to deal with bullying in schools.
But today he will focus on cyberbullying, an issue that continues to permeate the news and cause concern for parents and educators.
“Bullying is a learned behavior,” Wiler tells them. “But the good news is, it can be unlearned.”
In a world where 95 percent of teens use the Internet and 78 percent have a cellphone, according to a 2013 Pew Research study, bullying has expanded beyond the school yard.
To demonstrate the effects of cyberbullying, Wiler passes around stacks of yellow Post-It notes and asks each member of the audience to write something about the person sitting to her right.
Mean or nice, the person is then instructed to take the sticky note and put it on her neighbor’s back.
Although most of the women write compliments, (“I like your necklace” or “beautiful hair,”) the exercise shows how writing or posting cruel things about others for their peers to see can contribute to cyberbullying.
“Words are very powerful, and they’re even more powerful when they’re written,” Wiler says.
This presentation is one of many Wiler will do throughout the year, either to organizations or groups of elementary kids in Leawood.
A D.A.R.E. officer since he began his career in law enforcement 37 years ago, Wiler’s career has centered around making kids’ lives better. He’s trained teachers throughout the nation on bullying and written lessons on bullying that reach 32 million kids each year.
Through his trustworthy demeanor and years of research, Wiler has taken his career as a police officer and transformed it into a mission to make schools safer, happier places for kids.
Wiler has spent most of his adult life educating others on how to prevent and combat bullying, an issue that struck close to home for him when he was raising his son.
Wiler’s son, Justin, was in preschool when he was first bullied. Kids would kick him at recess or steal his Legos, and it escalated in the fifth and sixth grade.
“After school one of the kids had punched me in the nose and broke my nose,” said Justin, now 31. “It was in front of all the kids, and they started laughing.
“They did everything from push me around to literally try to harm me.”
“It finally all came out at home that it had been going on for a while and the teacher didn’t know,” Randy Wiler said. “That was where the strategy of coming back to the school and teaching, ‘Now this is what to look for, these are the steps to take.’ Sometimes we think we know more than we know, and the research shows us a little different.”
What began as a personal mission to protect his son has since evolved into a nationwide effort to teach others how to identify bullying behavior and what steps to take to prevent, report and address it.
Although Wiler was involved in the D.A.R.E. program and crime prevention from the beginning of his career, he didn’t find himself immersed in anti-bullying training and teaching until it affected his son.
“He’s really the one who’s brought it into the light through his training,” Justin said.
Wiler began taking research introduced in the ’90s by Norway anti-bullying pioneer Dan Olweus and implementing it in schools. It took about a year, Wiler said, for him to use the research to understand how to identify bullying and help make changes in schools.
By 2001, Olweus chose Wiler and 19 school psychologists to be trained first-hand by him in Washington, D.C.
Later, while attending a conference in Atlanta for school psychologists, Wiler connected with Michael R. Carpenter, the founder of the conference, who would help Wiler lay the groundwork for an organization called the International Bullying Prevention Association.
Also in attendance was Stan Davis, at the time a school psychologist in Maine who became another co-founder of the bullying prevention association.
The association holds a conference each year for members around the world. Last year marked the association’s 10th anniversary.
“Randy contributed a very clear sense of how to not only get change started in a school but how to maintain it,” Davis said. “He was one of the early people helping schools use data to guide their interventions.
“He’ll find ways to make learning exceptionally vivid,” Davis said. “Randy is one of these people who walks what he talks, who models complete respect for human beings.”
In 2006, Wiler was named the International D.A.R.E. Officer of the Year and was recognized for writing two anti-bullying lessons used worldwide. Wiler was the first police officer in Kansas to receive the award.
“I think that he recognized that there was a problem long before other people did,” Leawood Police Chief John Meier said. “He really made himself an expert in the area.”
Wiler spent a year developing the content for the lessons, which focus on letting students know that bullying goes on and that they can help prevent and put an end to it.
The lessons use puzzles and role-playing to show how bystanders can make a difference by reporting bullying to someone they trust, supporting the child being bullied or standing up the the bully.
Although the lessons reach 32 million kids each year, Wiler believes it takes more than a lesson to combat bullying.
“Those two lessons are not going change bullying,” Wiler said. “It’s going to let that classroom teacher in that room know.”
According to research from the School Psychology Review, 70.6 percent of kids said they’ve seen bullying in school, and 41 percent said they’ve witnessed bullying once a week or more.
Although more research has been done and ideas about bullying have been refined, making a difference in schools has continued to be a challenge for Wiler.
Higher standards and less money in education have contributed to more demands for teachers and administrators who have to make decisions about what classroom time should be used for.
“I think when they started in education, bullying was something they weren’t expected to do anything about,” Wiler said. “Now the research shows we can do something about it, but it takes a very significant investment of time and resources to do something about it.”
That time is what Wiler has invested day in and day out in his 30-plus years with the Leawood Police Department. Time in the classroom, time with teachers, and most importantly, time with kids.
“He’s very humble, and sometimes officers in schools can kind of be kind of intimidating to kids, and he is not that way at all,” Meier said. “That’s one of the ways he’s going to be remembered, as someone who is a friend and a confidant.”
“We usually have to talk about serious stuff, and he makes us want to talk about it,” said Griffin Brassell, a sixth-grader at Brookwood Elementary.
Wiler’s work in Johnson County centers around more than just bullying. As the community policing officer for Leawood, Wiler spends most of his time in classrooms teaching D.A.R.E. curriculum to elementary-age students.
The lessons range from responsibility to stress and peer pressure. Lessons typically begin with a story about characters with real-life situations the students may face on a daily basis.
On a Thursday at Brookwood Elementary, Wiler greets a classroom of sixth-graders as they get out their D.A.R.E. workbooks for their weekly lesson.
Wiler introduces Lesson 7, which focuses on communication, as he sets up the projector.
“Today we have a little video to start us off,” Wiler says.
A short video with cartoon characters introduces a problem: Sophia had an argument with a few friends who wouldn’t listen to her.
“I decided to talk to Lily and Michael in school tomorrow,” Sophia says. “But what should I say to get them listen to me?”
The students go through suggestions of what Sophia should say to make things right with her friends.
“If you say something mean to someone, you can’t just say you’re sorry and get rid of it,” Wiler tells them.
In the back corner of the classroom, a stuffed baby lion the class has named Juan Pablo lays in its own “apartment,” an area the class is responsible for keeping clean. Every sixth-grade class Wiler teaches has one, and throughout the year different students are required to take it home and journal about their weekend with the animal.
“Me and Juan Pablo did my homework,” an April 7 journal entry reads. “I had math, spelling and science. Later we play on the Xbox, then we went to Boy Scouts.”
Propped on a loft bed with a variety of outfits to choose from, Juan Pablo is a lesson in responsibility for the soon-to-be junior highers.
The students, meanwhile, are attentive and engaged in the conversation.
Next, Wiler brings three students to the front of the class. Each student is told to talk for 30 seconds about their favorite hobbies.
“My favorite thing to do is play soccer and write stories,” one student begins.
“DO NOT LISTEN!” a sign on the projector instructs the rest of the class.
One by one the students speak, as the rest of the class ignores them. It’s a lesson in empathy.
As part two of the video plays, the cartoon characters transform into real people, one of whom is frustrated that his two friends ignore him while using their cellphones.
It’s a lesson even adults can relate to.
So how can this situation be resolved? Wiler asks.
“Shut the phone off,” one student answers.
“Tell him he’s being rude,” another says.
The lesson comes to a close as the students learn new words for their glossaries: nonverbal communication, effective listening and empathy.
Wiler waves goodbye, but looks forward to next week’s lesson because it’s one he not only wrote but knows all too much about: bullying.
At the end of his presentation at Congregation Beth Shalom, Wiler shows a short video. This time, instead of characters depicting real-life issues, it’s his 2-year-old grandson, now 5, who pops up on the projector screen.
“I love you, Papa,” the toddler repeats, filming himself with an iPhone.
Wiler’s face beams as he watches the video of his daughter’s son.
Although Wiler’s son, who instigated Wiler’s mission against bullying, is now grown, there’s a new generation of children who will benefit from Wiler’s work.
When his grandson grows up, Wiler says, he may face the same issues Wiler has spent year after year educating others about. But if he has anything to do with it, Wiler will make sure his grandchildren and the adults around him will know what to do when and if that happens.
Stan Davis, who has known Wiler for more than 10 years, can speak to Wiler’s compassion for kids, even those who aren’t his own.
In 2011, Davis was traveling and doing training in India when he received a suicidal message in his email from a teenager who had been bullied.
The teen did not identify herself, but reached out to Davis after seeing his contact information on an anti-bullying site.
The teen was located near Wiler, so Davis forwarded the email to him.
Wiler then used his resources to find out the teen’s name and location and made sure the police did an assessment of her.
“She got the help she needed to get past this,” Davis said. “There’s never a question for Randy whether it’s his job or not.”
Wiler kept up with the teen for the next few years on his own to make sure she was OK. In fact, Wiler said, he still keeps in contact with her today, sometimes on a daily basis.
“He’s not driven by the paycheck but by his own ethical sense of what needs to be done,” Davis said. “It’s all been driven on a way to make kids’ lives better. He’s just really given his life to it.”