When it comes to the bullies and the bullied, it's all about choices.
A person can choose to be kind. A person can choose to speak up. A person can choose to seek help.
Those were some of the key messages imparted by Teen Truth Live, a San Diego-based anti-bullying group, and Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice Friday night, when 3,000 to 4,000 people gathered at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia for "A Ray of Hope: A Pro-Kindness, Anti-Bullying, Teen Suicide Prevention Outreach."
The event, a massive assembly filled with laughs and games, included other Ravens players — at least in spirit. Rice did his best Joe Flacco impersonation, tossing T-shirts into the crowd, and inviting children on stage to show-off their Ray Lewis dance moves.
The evening had a serious undertone, however.
It was Rice's second trip to Howard County as a pro-kindness, anti-bullying advocate. In May, he hosted a "Ray of Hope" event at Howard High School. More than 100 people — students, parents, educators and county leaders — attended that event, held shortly after the death of 15-year-old Grace McComas, a student at Glenelg High School, who took her own life on Easter Sunday after months of cyber-bullying.
"When I heard Grace's story it touched me," Rice said. "I felt every bit of the pain her family felt. It makes you think about why did it happen, and what can change."
The Merriweather event was held in partnership with Teen Truth Live, which presented "Teen Truth Bully," a 22-minute, student-created film.
Howard County Board of Education member Ellen Flynn Giles said prior to the event that the response to Rice's efforts have been overwhelming, and she hoped Friday's program would raise bullying awareness at many levels.
"We need to work together to come up with a way to combat this," she said. "It's not just at the schools, it's not just school-age children. The problem impacts society as a whole. It's not just an issue for children. It has a broader reach than that."
Students from all across the region attended the event, including Sara and Kristine Lowe, their mother Sheri, and their aunt Ruth Walls. The Laurel family hoped Rice's words would inspire the bullied — and the bullies.
"People who bully, they may feel they're better than others, but after this, maybe they'll think twice before bullying," said Sara, 15, a rising freshman at the Baltimore Lab School.
Kristine, 17, a rising senior at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, said perhaps the evening could offer a clearer perspective for those behind the taunts.
"Maybe, if people see things in a different way, they'll realize the good they can cause just by being nice," she said. "And, if not by being nice, maybe (the bullies) can just be quiet."
Giselle Rodriguez, a speaker with Teen Truth Live, addressed the crowd before and after the film, which showed the often tragic consequences of bullying. Rodriguez said it was up to everyone to stop bullying, and that often, the person doing the bullying is the one who is hurting the most.
"We do it to each other (bullying), even though we know how much it hurts," she said. "We have a choice not to do it. ... If you're not making a difference, you're doing nothing."
Those words were the most significant for Melissa Muul, 14, a rising freshman at Mt. Hebron High School.
"I want to make people feel good, and I'm going to do that," she said. "I'm going to include people, not exclude them anymore. I'm going to talk to people I've never talked to before."
In the past, when Melissa felt bullied, she told her mother and her guidance counselor.
That's exactly what students should do, Rice said: They have to speak up.
Retaliation, he said, is not the answer.
Rice knows, he said. His younger sister was bullied as a middle school student.
"Going into the eighth grade, a girl kept on picking on her," Rice said. "The girl threw a rock, hit my sister in the eye, and my mother's first reaction was to tell her to retaliate. That wasn't the right answer. We got the principal involved, we got the police involved. … We haven't had a problem since. My sister is living a happy, teenage life right now."
Everyone knows what fighting leads to, Rice said. Speaking to peers, keeping the word and awareness alive — that is the correct response to bullying.
"This age group is a very unique group," Rice said. "The message I want to leave you with is, you are not alone. If you feel bullied, help is all around you. … Asking for help doesn't make you less of a person."