When Howard University Men’s Basketball Coach Kevin Nickelberry talks to youth about bullying, he can tell who is being bullied. Having been bullied throughout most of his public school education in Prince George’s County, he recognizes their reaction to his very personal account of his ordeals.

“I can always identify the kids who are being bullied as I tell my story because they sit up… And, it sometimes gives them courage to speak out. Which is a great thing,” said Nickelberry.

What started as visits to two or three schools in the Washington, DC/Prince George’s County-area has mushroomed into a No Bullying campaign that now involves nearly 50 schools. As campaign partners, the schools post a banner that commits to no bullying, and students sign a pledge saying that they will not bully and will report bullying when they see it.

Then, the 5’11” college basketball coach who graduated from high school at 5’3″ speaks about how, because of his size, he was beat up as a kid and stuffed in lockers. While he shares experiences like hiding in the bathroom to avoid his tormentors and, as a result, attending summer school every year until 11th grade to pass, the students ask questions. If they are uncomfortable speaking in that forum, they e-mail him.

Finally, the schools are invited to attend several Howard University basketball games that are dedicated to no bullying. Nickelberry says that by attending the games, the students get to see some exciting basketball, but more importantly, they come together and get to see other kids powering together, fighting against bullying.

Through his campaign, Nickelberry tries to reach the bullied and the bullies, giving one group hope and hoping the others will see the error of their ways. Then, there’s his third target group, the popular kids who can step up and use their status to help stop the bullying.

He tells the story of Craig, a popular guy at his high school who stepped in and stopped a fight in which he was involved in the eleventh grade and changed his life.

“He became that guy to kind of keep people off me and stopped people from bullying me. There are a lot of people who can be that person, a lot of people who are popular, who can wield that popularity around… maybe help that unpopular kid to not be bullied,” he said.

Nickelberry says he’s gotten a positive response and sometimes gets e-mails from kids that say, “Coach, I’m Craig, I’m not Dino.” Dino is the kid who bullied him. At some schools, there are students who have identified with his characters and wear “I’m not Dino” nametags.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 32 percent of middle and high school students say they have been bullied during the school year. Citing the high incidence of bullying each year, rejecting the notion of bullying as a rite of passage or part of growing up and seeking solutions, President and First Lady Obama held the first-ever White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, in March 2011. Students, parents, teachers, non-profits, policy-makers and others from throughout the country gathered to share their experiences and address the issue.

In January 2011, Empowering Minds of Maryland’s Youth (EMMY), a Baltimore-based nonprofit just 35 miles up the road, held its first conference on bullying. Now, the organization is gearing up for number two. The conference, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Feb. 11, at Friendship Academy of Engineering & Technology Middle/High, 2500 E. Northern Parkway, will feature a panel discussion and breakout sessions that will allow for interaction between students, parents, teachers social workers and others. Professionals will also be able to earn CE credits for participating. There will also be entertainment and refreshments.
The panel discussion, one of the conference highlights, will be moderated by Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby and will feature panelists like Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle principal Tracey Garrett, Baltimore City School Police Force Chief of Police Marshall T. Goodwin, former Baltimore City Branch NAACP President Marvin L. ‘Doc’ Cheatham Sr. and Coach Nickelberry, among others. Maryland State Delegate Shawn Z. Tarrant will provide the keynote address.

EMMY, which began in executive director Knicole Taylor’s living room in 2003 as an informal mentoring program for nine girls in her community, has blossomed into an outreach program that serves approximately 50 students, middle school through college, male and female. Now, operating out of two middle schools, Steuart Hill Academic Academy and Friendship Academy of Engineering & Technology Middle/High, Taylor is focused on providing information to help the young students make informed decisions and the right choices.

Taylor is hopeful that the conference will lead to some parents taking bullying more seriously. She says that many times parents don’t feel it’s an issue because their children have never mentioned having a problem. The conference will provide them with ways to approach and discuss the subject and help them look for signs.
She says, “Let’s be proactive. We have so many children who bully and don’t really know what bullying is. Arm yourself and your children and your neighbors’ children with information so they know what they’re doing, and they can make informed decisions for their futures.”

The messages from Taylor and Nickelberry have a common theme. Both are focused on helping youth to understand that it’s never too late and that who they are today is not necessarily the person they will be tomorrow. That will be determined by the choices that they make in life, and people who make bad decisions usually have bad outcomes.

“Don’t believe that just because you’re the most popular person today, and you’re bullying people, that you’re always going to have that type of life,” Nickelberry said, in summary.

For additional information about the Bullying Conference, visit http://www.empoweringyouthusa.net/.

Jannette J. Witmyer

Special to the AFRO