Bullying-prevention activist uses tragedy to empower kids

 
 
Updated 10/13/2018 6:15 PM
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  • Activist Kirk Smalley of Oklahoma was inspired by the death of his son, Ty, to embark on a nationwide campaign against bullying.

      Activist Kirk Smalley of Oklahoma was inspired by the death of his son, Ty, to embark on a nationwide campaign against bullying. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

  • Jenn Djordjevic, left, Jaidyn Karskens, center, and Kailah Peters read the stories of children who were victims of bullying and who died by suicide at a presentation Saturday in Hoffman Estates.

      Jenn Djordjevic, left, Jaidyn Karskens, center, and Kailah Peters read the stories of children who were victims of bullying and who died by suicide at a presentation Saturday in Hoffman Estates. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

  • Stand for the Silent speaker Kirk Smalley encourages parents to talk to children about bullying Saturday in Hoffman Estates.

      Stand for the Silent speaker Kirk Smalley encourages parents to talk to children about bullying Saturday in Hoffman Estates. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

After two years of being bullied, Ty Field-Smalley faced his tormentor in the school gym.

"Ty finally had enough. He retaliated," father Kirk Smalley recalled Saturday to a sometimes tearful audience at the Hoffman Estates police department.

"It seems it's always the second guy that gets caught," Smalley said. Ty, 11, was suspended and brought home by his mother, who wanted to stay with the sixth-grader but had to return to work.

"He didn't do his homework. He didn't do his chores. Instead my boy killed himself on my bedroom floor," Smalley said.

The Oklahoma construction worker took that moment of devastation and turned it into a anti-bullying crusade. Since Ty's death in May 2010, Smalley and his wife Laura have stood before 1.3 million kids and had them repeat, "I am somebody, and I can make a difference."

Last week, Smalley brought his message to 3,500 middle-school students at Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54.

"Bullying is an issue and it's one we need to acknowledge as a community and as a society," District 54 Superintendent Andy DuRoss said.

About 28 percent of U.S. students in grades six through 12 experience bullying but only one-third or less tell an adult about it, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website stopbullying.gov.

"Kids who are being bullied learn to hide it real well," Smalley said. He and Laura have crossed the U.S. as part of Stand for the Silent, a nonprofit organization founded after their son's death.

Their educational program seeks to empower victims, to reform bullies through telling Ty's story, and to inspire kids who are onlookers to intervene.

"You've got to be the one that goes up to the new kid in town ... the guy that folks always seem to pick on," Smalley said Saturday at a community presentation co-sponsored by the volunteer organization Humanity Rising.

He also told parents they can be the first line of defense against bullies by connecting with their children, by setting aside devices and phones, and engaging in honest conversations.

"You can't settle for 'How was your day?' 'Fine,'" Smalley said. "They're telling you that because they think you don't care."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines bullying as repeated aggressive behavior such as threats, attacks or excluding someone in-person or online.

Bullying can result in anxiety, depression and lower grades, and combined with other stressors can increase the chance someone could "engage in suicide-related behaviors," experts said. However, "most youth who are involved in bullying do not engage in suicide-related behavior," the CDCP reported.

For District 54 middle-schoolers, "this is a message of hope," DuRoss said. "We are empowering children to make better choices and be better people."

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