MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - On the playground, internet and cell phone your children are taunted, tortured and bullied until they become another statistic, another headline.
This year those headlines keep coming. In January, Phoebe Prince, 15, hanged herself in her Massachusetts home after reports of relentless bullying. In March, 17-year-old Alexis Pilkington committed suicide after being terrorized on the internet.
Patrick Kohlmann, 15, knows their pain.
"Being a victim of bullying I know how they feel," Kohlmann said. "I've been down that road - thoughts of suicide and harming myself."
Kohlmanns' nightmare started in middle school in West Islip, NY. Now he's living on the Grand Strand, and starting a grassroots campaign to keep other kids from going though the same horrors.
"I'd be pushed down the stairs, thrown into lockers. I'd be in the locker room trying to change and this kid kept throwing me into lockers and calling me names," Patrick recalled. "I would just wake up in the morning and tell my parents, 'Mom, can I just not go to school today? I don't feel good. I don't want to go.'"
His mother, Beth Kohlmann said she thought she was doing the right thing when she told her son to ignore it.
"(I would say) 'They're just jealous of you because you're an honor student' or 'They're jealous of you because you're in the school play... just get past it,'" Beth Kohlmann remembered.
But Patrick couldn't get past it. The torture came to a head the day his bully threatened to kill him. Even though his parents called the school to let administrators know what was going on, Patrick said just as promised, the bully came after him.
"The next day he threw a rock at my head and I had a concussion," Patrick said.
"Patrick didn't get so much as a bag of ice that day. We took him to the hospital; we notified the police department," Beth Kohlmann said. "People say 'Boys will be boys.' It's not boys will be boys if it is a constant, consistent thing. Then you're torturing somebody."
This began the Kohlmanns' battle with the West Islip, NY school system - a battle to make the classroom safe for Patrick again. It was a fight that turned into a lawsuit. It's the kind of situation school safety and legal expert Ed Dragan finds himself involved in a lot these days.
"I've had numerous situations where kids have been bullied in school, parents contacted the school, asked for meetings with the principal or teachers and the school just brushed them off," Dragan said. "So what I do with those parents is help them to understand what is behind the door to the principal's office."
Dragan, a former principal and school superintendent himself, is using what he knows to help parents.
Dragan offers a Top 10 for parents who have a child that is being bullied:
- Develop a climate in your home that encourages discussion.
- Listen, don't talk too much or judge, when your daughter says the kids are calling her names.
- Ask questions to find out answers to who, what, when and where the bullying occurred.
- Write the information down into a narrative like you are going to tell a good friend what's happening to your child.
- Call the principal of your child's school and tell the story to her after you've practiced telling it to a friend.
- Ask the principal what you can do together to stop the bullying.
- Ask for a copy of the school's anti-bullying, harassment and intimidation policy.
- Write down everything that the principal said and agreed to do.
- Send a thank you letter to the principal and recap what was said and what she agreed to do.
- Check with your daughter to see if things have changed.
One of the most important things you can know as a parent is your rights. Dragan said a lot of parents don't know the school has a responsibility to provide a safe environment for their kids. It's the law.
"What I've found in talking to parents all over the country is that most don't know that their state has a law that requires boards of education to have anti-bullying and anti-intimidation policies," Dragan said.
Schools in South Carolina have to have a bullying policy according to a 2006 state law. The website "Bully Police USA" grades all states on their laws. South Carolina gets an A-minus.
The Kohlmanns ended up settling with Patrick's school district in New York. They moved down to Surfside Beach a couple of years ago, where life in Horry County schools has been very different for Patrick. He loves school. While he shines on stage at St James High School, the past still haunts him.
"I still have a hard time trusting people because I'm not sure if they are going to turn on me again," Patrick commented.
But he is fighting back in a peaceful way. He is now an anti-bullying activist who talks to administrators and at-risk children about his experience. He also designed a website and video so people can see bullying through his eyes, the victim's eyes.
"I felt that if I had to go through this, other kids were going through it and ending their lives, why not try to end it?" he said. "Why not let everyone knows how it feels to be bullied and help them try to stop it themselves?"
If she has learned anything as a parent, Beth Kohlmann will tell you to listen to your children and take what they are telling you about the school bully very seriously
"Don't wait until it hits our community. Don't wait until it hits our schools," Beth Kohlmann said. "You read about it, you see it. Two kids in PA, two kids in MA, one in North Carolina - this is all within months, recent months. I think you shouldn't wait until a tragedy happens. If you can do something to stop it or at least educate people about it, you have to do it."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Dragan's book, "The Bully Action Guide: Getting Your School to Listen When Your Child is Being Bullied," will be published by Macmillian and is due on the parenting shelves in the spring of 2011. Parents can find out more on bullying on Dragan's website, www.edmgt.com. He has offered to answer parents' questions via the site's email form at edmgt.com/contact.php.