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Starting the conversation at Centennial's anti-bullying week

About 40 percent of students at Centennial High School have reported being bullied in the past school year, according to Principal Carl Perkins.

That, he said, is just too many.

"That's huge," he said. "That's one of the things that caused us to take (this week) on in the first place."

Centennial is in the middle of an "Anti-Bullying Week," and bullying prevention initiatives are being incorporated into classes, activities, projects — even the afternoon announcements.

"We don't know where the conversation will go, but we want it to start here," PTSA President Bonnie Sorak said.

Seminars and conversations are happening all week as part of the program organized by the School Improvement Team, and the conversation Tuesday centered around cyber-bullying.

Centennial alumnus and Internet sensation Zach Lederer was on hand to enumerate the positive benefits of social media, like message-sharing and community building. But after hearing the positives of cyber-space, students heard the negatives as well.

Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor at Florida Atlantic University's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, outlined basic rules for students to recognize and prevent cyber-bullying, as well as protect their online image and reputation.

"Don't be a jerk online," Hinduja said. "It matters. It cuts deep. Don't be a moron online. Don't think you're invincible. Don't sabotage your future."

As Hinduja shared stories of bullying — his own experiences scattered throughout — students were able to place the content of the assembly into the context of the entire week.

""We wanted this to be huge," said Luke Byrne, 17, a senior and member of the Student Government Association.

Whether people like to admit it or not, bullying happens at Centennial, Byrne said — the school culture is open and accepting, but it still happens.

"Some people don't think it happens here, that it's not part of Centennial," he said. "But it's still a problem. Our goal is awareness."

Bullying at Centennial is no more or less common than it is across the country, Perkins said. But any amount of bullying is too much, he said.

"(Bullying) affects everyone and everything; it's such a part of life," said Helen Kramer, 17, a junior and co-president of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance. "If you've been bullied, it's going to be a part of you."

Both Byrne and Kramer said they had been affected by bullying in the past; now that Kramer is co-president of the Gay-Straight Alliance, she said, she can be an advocate for those who sometimes are bullied the worst.

During the cyber-bullying presentation, Hinduja showed an image of Tyler Clementi to the auditorium packed with students. Most know Clementi's story, Hinduja said: the Rutgers University student committed suicide after his roommate used a web-cam to live-stream Clementi and another man kissing.

Hinduja showed a screen cap of Clementi's roommate's Twitter account, on which he posted disparaging comments about Clementi, and then Hinduja showed a list of names — young people who have committed suicide in the last year as a result of bullying. The students in the auditorium, previously giggling at Hinduja's jokes and stories, fell silent.

"These cases speak for themselves," Perkins said. "Bullying creates an emotional environment where students are hurt. You don't need sticks and stones to break bones; words can do equally as much damage. Actions, too, leave long-lasting impressions on kids. Many grow up to be adults that have pains and wounds that are still open. Anything we can do to alleviate or minimize the pain is worth our time and effort."

After the week's lessons and discussions are over, Perkins said, the task at hand will be moving forward with what was learned.

"The kids know it's a start," he said. "It's a start in terms of looking at a school-wide perspective, and how we can make it a better climate and atmosphere. The kids see that, and they're waiting for the next step."

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