Lake and Sumter Style Magazine
1:58 am EDT
Thursday, August 13, 2020

Say no to bullying

Photo: Nicole Hamel

Leesburg High School has learned one year can make a difference at a school.

There’s a lot of buzz at Leesburg High School, and it’s about more than the great Yellow Jackets sports teams. The halls are filled with students who feel safer and happier, and know they not only have peer support but administrative support, too.

No school is an exception to the problem of bullying. Like most high schools, LHS deals with the issue almost daily. However, the reported incidents of bullying were quite low and that was a worrisome problem to Principal Michael Randolph. His goal was to make sure every student met the goal in the school’s mission statement: “Through our collective belief, skill, and will, each Leesburg High School student will graduate with the skills necessary for success in either college/university, a career, or the military.”

“I was involved with Leesburg High School and became very good friends with the principal,” David van de Velde says. “As a member of The Villages Rotary Club, I was active with the Interact chapter at the school.”

Interact is a program from Rotary International for young people ages 12-18 to help them develop leadership skills and learn the power of “Service Above Self.” LHS has a thriving Interact Club.

“I knew we had to do something about bullying,” David says. “I came up with the idea for an anti-bully campaign and talked to Michael about it. I knew we needed to get in front of the issue before it ever started. Leesburg High School said they would be the pilot program for it. Now, we have gotten Leesburg High School and the Rotary to do something that no one has ever done.”

Knowing the plan would require student-to-student communication, he looked for leaders in Interact to implement his plan, understanding peer pressure could be used in a positive manner.

“If I stand up in front of a group of students, it goes in one ear and out the other,” David says. “If a student stands up and says something, they listen.”

When he found Melissa Bready, who was working with the Interact group, he knew he had found his answer. She has been the key example of what a difference it can make to be part of such an endeavor. A student in the culinary program, she already is a part-time line cook at Arlington Ridge Chesapeake Grill. 

Her story, however, wasn’t always so happy. She struggled with an unhappy home life and having no self-esteem; she even began cutting herself. Her father was verbally abusive and disowned her when she was a junior. Bereft and left with no hope, Melissa went through her house gathering pills and took every one she could find. Fortunately, a friend found her before it was too late and saved her life.

With help from chef John Bell, head of the culinary program, David, and others involved with the school, she found her way to a better life. 

“I found out being who I am, I have to keep myself busy to be happy,” Melissa says. 

“She has leadership skills she didn’t realize she had,” David adds. “And she has been out front in everything we’ve done with the Pledge Against Bullying. We couldn’t have done what we’ve done without Melissa.”

“Through the times I was moving around, I was bullied a lot,” Melissa says. “The administration didn’t care. Kids like to pick on new kids. It was just accepted.”

Not anymore.

Throughout this school year, David and another Rotarian, Ira Nodelman, have added to the team of adults working with the program, and Melissa also has been at the forefront. She speaks openly about her struggles and how her life has changed with help from John and David, whom she affectionately calls “Grandpa.” 

The program is Pledge Against Bullying. Each student signs a card that reads, “End Bullying Pledge, Leesburg High School.” Their signature is witnessed by another student and dated. These cards are put into plastic holders with chains so they can be attached to the student’s backpack and visible for all to see. David says the white tags attract attention and students ask about them, spreading the word.

In their research, David and his group have discovered most students feel they are the only one feeling alone and left out of everything. By taking the pledge and having the white tag on their backpack, they realize there are people all over the school who may have had the same problems or lack of self-confidence they had. 

To keep the kids interested and keep the program an active part of their school life, Rotary members have set up an office where they make buttons, create temporary tattoos, and work on other weekly incentives. 

David has even established a plan that will allow the students and anyone else who wishes to participate to have their photos sent into space. It can be just for fun or even “in memory of” someone special. Email photos to for inclusion in this historic mission.

The mission statement of the Pledge Against Bullying is “to create and support an innovative new high and middle school club initiative to stop bullying before it starts.”

Since Rotary International’s theme is People of Action, Rotary District Governor Ron Janssen says, “Bullying is a universal problem. That’s why we must join with school administration, law enforcement, students, and members of Rotary.”

David and Ira enlisted other students to help. Jalen Hodge, who had been president of Interact, saw the campaign as a chance to make a difference in her school and immediately became involved. 

“It has made a big change in my high school,” Jalen says. “My first two years here were rough. I’m glad I’ve gotten to be a part of such a great program. I’m hoping it will last a long time. It’s good to hear my name in connection with something so good at my high school.”

Michael admits that getting students to report bullying is still the biggest hurdle. 

“Students need to know what happens when they report bullying. Where does the report go?” says Leesburg police Lt. Scott Mack. “Too many incidents are never reported properly. Then (students) go out into the community and feel bitter about talking to law enforcement. But if it’s handled properly in the school, incidents are also reported in the community, and that’s positive reinforcement.”

Michael says LHS has added a secondary dean to deal with incident reports.

“We’re providing a safety net on the campus, and it’s important for us to react that way and act quickly, within 24 to 48 hours, so the kids don’t lose faith in us,” he adds. “We bring the kids together involved in the bullying incident and get to the root of the issue. This has been very positive. We’re going to be expanding the program next year, as well.” 

How can you make your mark against bullying?

Story: Melissa Bready

Editor’s note: At age 15, Melissa attempted suicide. She is a speaker and leader for the Pledge Against Bullying campaign and wrote this to encourage fellow students. Used with permission.

Don’t be a bystander. When you see people being mean or someone getting picked on, stop ignoring it. Help the victim get away from the bullies. Don’t let them stand alone. You never know how much that can mean. Help them report it if they are too worried.

Stand up for yourself. If you are ever the victim, don’t take it. You are strong and deserve better. Tell them to stop and why it is not right. If it continues, report it to someone you trust.

Take the Pledge Against Bullying. Be a part of the visible majority on campus. Pledge to be the change you wish to see. You are not alone. See PAB bag for more details.

Spread more positivity. To make a change, we must shift our attitudes and environment on campus. Compliment people more, be thankful for everything, cherish your friends, and give out the energy you wish to receive.

Ask for help. Whatever is going on, do not allow yourself to stay in an uncomfortable situation. If you ever find yourself in a bad situation and do not feel safe or happy, do not hesitate to ask someone for help. Ask now before it is too late.

Judge less. Don’t be so quick to react in a situation. You never know what someone may be going through. We all receive plenty of judgment from family and school. There is no need to spread any more hate.

Make a friend. Talk to someone you don’t know. If you are struggling trying to find someone, look for a small white card on their backpack. That indicates they have taken the pledge and want to be a part of the positive change. Or, if you see someone upset, talk to them. Don’t let anyone be alone.