As a youngster, Robert Ingram lived a private hell, suffering taunts, teasing and pummeling from other school kids.
Ingram was picked on because he looked a little different. He was born with a cleft palate and lip. Due to his surgeries and scars, school was difficult, but the abuse was worse.
“Children seemed to really enjoy hurting me, whether it was verbal, physical or emotional didn’t seem to matter, as long they got a turn at picking on the ‘flat nose,’” Ingram said.
Florida law defines bullying as “systematically and chronically inflicting physical hurt or psychological distress to one or more students” and may include teasing, social exclusion, threat, intimidation, stalking, physical violence, theft, public humiliation, destruction of property and sexual, religious or racial harassment.
“Perhaps more than any other school safety problem, bullying affects students’ sense of security,” wrote Rana Sampson in a guide for the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.
“Bullying is widespread and perhaps the most under-reported safety problem on American school campuses. Contrary to popular belief, bullying occurs most often at school than on the way to and from school,” Sampson wrote.
Another terrifying aspect of bullying is the use of a computer to harass or spread lies about a victim called cyber bullying.
“School was terrifying for me,” Ingram said. “I can think of an incident that happened every day at school — middle school especially.”
Ingram felt there was no one to talk to. He didn’t feel comfortable discussing it with his parents, and when he complained about the abuse to a teacher, he was told, “Don’t tattle.”
“I was really hurt, scared and confused every day,” Ingram said. “What had I done to make me these people hate me?”
Then he was jumped on by a bunch of boys at Southside Middle School in Jacksonville.
“I lay on the ground, being kicked in the face, punched and hit with various items. I remember looking up through the violence to see a teacher simply watching,” said Ingram, who was hospitalized after the attack.
What happened next changed his life. A friend helped him up and gave him a card for a free lesson at a martial arts facility.
Fifteen years later, he now owns his own martial arts academy, Alpha Dogs Martial Arts, and believes karate can give youngsters the confidence they need to avoid being bullied.
“I was never in a fight after that, that was not in the ring or at a tournament,” Ingram said.
Now, instead of fighting bullies, his fight is against bullying. He's hosting an anti-bullying fundraiser on June 1 at Latitude 30, called Beers Against Bullies, a tournament version of beer pong. All the proceeds benefit stand4thesilent.com, an anti-bullying organization. Ingram is also working to form an anti-bullying organization in Jacksonville. Stand for the Silent was started in 2010 by a group of students from Oklahoma State University and the Oklahoma City Upward Bound Foundation after they heard the story of Ty Field-Smalley, an 11-year-old who committed suicide after being suspended from school for retaliating against a bully who had been terrorizing him for two years.
Florida’s anti-bullying law, “The Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for Students Act,” is named for a 15-year-old Cape Coral boy who hanged himself in a closet after enduring two years of taunts and Internet attacks.
The state law requires all public schools to adopt policies to discourage bullying in person and online or risk losing state funding.
According to statistics from the Florida Department of Education, bullying in public schools showed a 23.5 percent decrease in 2011-’12, dropping to 4,860 incidents, compared with 6,308 in 2008-’09.
Over the past four years, Clay County Schools reported the highest number of bullying incidents in Northeast Florida with 206, plus 24 harassment incidents. Duval County counted 108 bullying incidents and 26 harassment incidents, compared with 122 bullying and 37 harassment incidents in St. Johns County and 19 and 13 in Nassau County.
In the 2010-’11 school year, Duval County Public Schools reported no bullying or bully-related incidents. Marsha Oliver, a school spokesperson, said she could not explain why it had no incidents reported.
As part of its fight against bullying, the Jacksonville University Sociology Club screened the documentary, “Bully,” following up with a discussion, including about 300 community members and students, on March 13.
Kyla Wade, the group’s president, said there was not a dry eye in the building after they watched the movie.
“It was very powerful,” Wade said. “Everyone was moved that night.”
The movie follows students from Georgia, Mississippi, Iowa, Texas and Oklahoma during the 2009-’10 school year. It also focuses on the suicides of two bullying victims, including Ty Fields-Smalley.
“We started discussing the movie right around when school started, and we felt this area needed to be addressed. Our goal is to raise awareness for bullying and see if we can help out in our community by organizing anti-bullying campaigns,” said Sarah Wilson, the club’s secretary.
The event was co-sponsored by the Junior League of Jacksonville, Mental Health America, JU’s Gay-Straight Alliance, Active Minds and TRiO Support Services. The federal TRiO programs are educational outreach programs designed to motivate and support students with disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Each year, we pick a social issue,” said Heather Downs, an assistant professor of sociology at JU. Students study problems and work to change them.
Last year, the Sociology Club screened the documentary “Miss Representation,” which exposes the media’s under-representation of women in positions of power and influence, she said.
The club spent a lot of time discussing bullying, Downs explained.
“It is very difficult to clearly delineate what bullying is as opposed to normal high school drama," Downs said. “If we can’t define it, we can’t fix it.”
About 25 JU students participated in Atlantic Coach High School Challenge Day activities, discussing bullying and cliques.
“I wanted to raise awareness. Some of the schools have put it under the table, saying ‘It’s not a problem,’ ” Wilson said.
“I find that very wrong. I’ve seen it first-hand,” she added, explaining that she was bullied as a youngster because of a weight problem.
Wilson, a junior majoring in sociology, wants to go on to graduate school and eventually become a school social worker.
“The movie inspired me,” Wilson said.
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry operates a Bullying Resource Center on its website, aacap.org/cs/Bullying.ResourceCenter.
It said it's important to be aware if a child is being bullied, noting that half of all children are bullied at some point during their school years.
“Victims of bullying are at increased risks for depression, anxiety, health complaints, eating disorders, school absenteeism, running away, alcohol and drug abuse, self-injury, accidental injuries, poor school performance and suicidal behaviors. They are also at risk for becoming a bully.”
“I was a victim,” Ingram said, “but I found an outlet to get away from it.”