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Anti-bullying campaign gets personal for LAPD and students

Mike Szymanski | November 4, 2015

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LAPD Detectives Donna Wheeler and Jennifer Cohen show their TS tattoos in honor of a bullied boy.

An LA Unified anti-bullying campaign for at-risk youth that includes an innovative arts program culminated today in an emotional speech by a father, whose 11-year-old son killed himself after being bullied. Students, teachers, even police officers had tears in their eyes at Bret Hart Preparatory Middle School.

For some of the officers, it got personal. Los Angeles Police Detective Donna Wheeler rolled up her sleeve and showed the tattoo she and about half a dozen others now wear to show support for the father’s anti-bullying campaign. It’s a heart with the initials TS, for Ty Smalley.

“We were very moved by the story and what Kirk Smalley is doing is doing for youth, and this is the only tattoo I have,” said Det. Wheeler. Her colleague, officer Jennifer Cohen, added, “We were amazed by him.”

LAPD’s Southeast Division connected with the non-profit Venice-based P.S. ARTS program and launched a pilot program with a $40,000 grant from the California Endowment. It’s the division’s first collaboration with an arts program, and it hopes to replicate it in other LAUSD schools, particularly in the southeast and southwest sections of Los Angeles, Wheeler said.

As a helicopter flew over the school and sirens wailed in the background, Wheeler, who is the division’s community relations supervisor, said, “This is the kind of thing these kids have to deal with every day. Helicopters, shootings, violence, crime. With this program, we have been able to get them away from the trauma these see every day. And bullying comes at them from all directions.”

Wheeler smirked and admitted, “I used to be a bully.”

The program for the South Los Angeles students involves police officers and students working together on a 20-week after school theater program in which the students write the play and perform it. As part of the program, they bring in guest speakers, like Smalley, to inspire and motivate the students.

Lui Sanchez, who runs the Inside Out Community Arts after-school program for P.S. ARTS, said he met Det. Wheeler in 2012. They immediately hit it off and developed the LAPD Jeopardy Program, a gang prevention/intervention program for boys and girls ages 8 through 17 and their parents. They identified 24 students to get involved.

“The arts gives them tools to look inward and how to express and control their emotions,” Sanchez said. “It builds their confidence and it built trust in the police and showed them how to resolve bullying.”


Kirk Smalley talks about his son’s suicide after being bullied.

Roland Zee worked with the students and officers and said he definitely saw some ups and downs. “Students got to say what was on their minds about racism, bullying, the police,” Zee said. “But the police got to see the students in a different light, and the students got to see the police in a different light. The students wrote the plays, cast it and did the choreography, music and songs. We hope to continue this here and many other schools.”

Police officers and teachers said they have seen vast improvements in attitudes of students in the neighborhood who might have turned to crime or dropped out of school.

“Our aim is to be a catalyst for lifelong change,” said Kristen Paglia, the chief executive officer of P.S. ARTS. “Students develop understanding and skills in our theater program that will be instrumental in making the best decisions for themselves, like staying in school and being engaged contributors to their families and communities.”

Smalley is part of the Stand for the Silent campaign that was started in 2010 by a group of students from Oklahoma State University after they learned of Ty’s suicide, which followed two years of bullying.

At today’s meeting, five Bret Hart students read tributes, holding photographs of students who had committed suicide after being bullied. Then, Smalley talked about his son’s suicide, which led him to tears.

“I’m here to tell you guys what happened to Ty and to make sure it does not happen to another family,” Smalley said. He pointed to the students and asked, “How many of you have been bullied?”

At least 80 percent of the hundreds of children in the auditorium raised their hands.

“How many of you are bullies?” Smalley asked.

A handful of students raised their hands.

Smalley said, “I love you both, I love you all, but you know that some of you can become heroes if you stand up against it.”

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