WANTAGE, N.J. (AP) — Ashley Craig recalls a turning point in her life. As an eighth-grade student at Sussex Middle School, a classmate and close companion sat her down at a desk.
He said, “I’m going to end it.”
She laughed it off at first, unaware of what he meant.
So he clarified, “I don’t have any friends. People make fun of me. I’m going to end my life.” The gravity of his words pushed Craig back into her seat. Although she was sworn to secrecy, she immediately told a guidance counselor of the boy’s declaration.
The boy refused to talk to Craig for the first few days, but after he received therapy, he approached her once more. He said, “You saved my life.”
A victim of relentless taunting and cruelty herself, Craig, now 14, of Wantage, has taken a stand against bullying.
“If I had the capability to save one life, I have the capability of saving many,” Craig said. After dedicating eight months to research, and preparation, Craig recently presented a moving anti-bullying campaign to the High Point Board of Education.
“It hit me hard because I would never want to see anyone go through that because I know what it feels like to be bullied,” Craig said.
“It was my bullying experience, my friends and overall, just seeing the enormity of the issue (that motivated me),” she said. “It’s (bullying) being called an epidemic now.” After hearing Craig’s poignant speech and detailed proposal to reduce bullying activity, the school board unanimously approved her initiative, “Students Against Being Bullied” as a student group.
Craig, with appreciated assistance of Vice Principal Jon Tallamay, freshman guidance counselor Lisa Frisbie and Principal Gregory Youngman, will now work toward implementing her three-tiered plan.
Students Against Being Bullied will incorporate two designated texting systems: The first will be a report line, where administrative heads will be alerted of inappropriate behavior by victims or bystanders. The students’ names will remain confidential unless the situation is life-threatening.
The second is a support line, where counselors will be available to provide resources to benefit the students. The two help lines are strictly for text messaging between the hours of 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. An e-mail system will also be in place for non-urgent reports or questions outside the texting hours.
“I hope that students will no longer feel as though they have to hold back on what they are experiencing or what they are watching other students experience,” Craig said. With this ‘Report and Support Line,’ students will no longer feel as if they have no one to talk to, that the only way to resolve their issues is to take their own lives.”
Craig said she designed this system based on knowledge of her generation, so she went with texting. She found that 22 percent of children ages 6 to 9 own cell phones, 60 percent of students 10 to 14 have cell phones and 84 percent of teens from age 15 to 18 have them.
The systems will require two cell phones and unlimited texting plans. The monthly estimate given to Frisbie was $45 per line, equating to $900 annually for the 10-month school year. Craig is currently hashing out possible contracts with service providers and exploring other less expensive avenues.
The second phase of her plan includes a peer support group that will meet twice a month for one hour to give students the opportunity to speak with other students about bullying issues. The sessions will be facilitated by Frisbie and guidance counselor Kristen Jaccodine.
“There are a lot of other kids who are bullied or were bullies,” Craig said.
“(The peer support group) is there to make students aware that they’re not alone and to let them know we are here to help.” To ensure students won’t feel insecure, other students from various school groups will attend each meeting so there is never just one person at the gathering.
The third phase of Craig’s plan is to designate a safe that will be open before classes start, from 7 to 7:30 a.m. The haven will provide a safe environment to any student.
The room will be voluntarily supervised by English teacher Carla Mancuso.
“I’ve been in education for 20 years and I’ve never had a student who wanted to make a difference as much as this girl,” Frisbie said.
In middle school, Craig was honored with the caring student award and the Prudential Spirit of the Community Award for creating thoughtful fundraisers. In sixth grade, she founded a drive that collected school supplies for students who could not afford them; in response to the budget crisis in her eighth-grade year, she created an event that raised nearly $1,600 to save various extracurricular activities at Sussex Middle School.
Today, she is a member of P.R.I.D.E (Peers Rejoicing In a Drug-Free Environment), S.A.V.E (Students Against Violence Everywhere), Gay/Straight Alliance and DECA, a business and retail organization.
With the state statute passed in November, giving New Jersey the strictest anti-bullying policy in the nation, Frisbie said Trenton is merely “riding Ashley’s coattails.”
Craig is anxious to get the ball moving. The next few weeks will be used to create posters to bring awareness to the new student activist group, which will be followed by an interactive student assembly that will explain the issue to students and inform them of their new resources.
“I hope to go statewide with this and I will work extremely hard to get there,” Craig said.
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