Recording artist turned speaker Keenan West is visiting Maury County schools this week to speak with students about the dangers of bullying, encouraging pupils not to remain silent bystanders when their peers are maliciously treated in school and online.
During his time in Maury County, West, a native of Cincinnati, will visit nine campuses: E.A. Cox Middle, Columbia Central, Whitthorne Middle, Mt. Pleasant Middle and High School and McDowell Elementary.
Tuesday morning, West brought his presentation mixing song, dance and speech to the middle and high school students of Zion Christian Academy before another appearance at Spring Hill Middle that afternoon.
Using scenarios presented in the form of music videos and actual incidences, West exhibited the real world dangers of bullying and the life changing impact it can have on both victims and perpetrators of the act, while simultaneously enforcing the guidance found in the institute’s Christian values.
“I share this with you as your friend,” West said, standing on the reflective wooden basketball court inside the school’s gymnasium. “We need the bystanders to step up, because there are always going to be bullies and there are always going to be people who make bad decisions. You need the courage to step out of the crowd. You don’t have to wait and listen for the direction from a teacher or a counselor. You are a leader now.”
During his presentation, he discussed the fine line between teasing and bullying, along with the five types of bullying: physical, verbal, relation, cyber and sexual.
West reminded students of the power of words and how comments, whether spoken or shared on social media, can have a damaging effect lasting a lifetime, or in some cases, end a life.
Considering when malicious words or embarrassing private information is shared on the web, he encouraged students to put themselves in the shoes of the person attacked online and think twice before commenting, sharing or hitting the “like” button.
“You just think that it was funny, but you are not seeing the other side of it,” West said. “The emotional and mental scars that happen through verbal bullying can last much longer than the scars of physical bullying.”
West shared the tragic Cincinnati story of Sycamore High School graduate Jessica Logan, who committed suicide just one month after her graduation following the circulation of nude photographs she had taken of herself and shared with her then-boyfriend months earlier. She was 18 years old.
Logan’s story served as a representation of an ever growing list of young people who were compelled to end their own lives after being bullied in person and through social media.
This list includes names like Tyler Clementi, Jadin Bell, Rehtaeh Parsons and Emilie Olsen.
West shared one statistic with his audience: 57 percent of bullying cases could have been prevented with someone stepping in.
“I try to involve students, get them participating and really focus on the role that bystanders have,” West said following the morning assembly. “It looks different for each grade, but the message stays the same for each community. My focus is to get the bystander to become the one standing up.”
As West prepares to share this lesson, at the start of each assembly he invites the bravest of students to dance in front of their teachers and peers, symbolizing the strength required to go against the ever increasing tide of the digital domino effect.
“Because we have social media and because we have cyber bullying, parents, counselors and teachers are doing their best to get involved, but it is just impossible because it is so much more prevalent now than it ever was,” West said. “Now if you make a mistake or if you get into a fight, the whole school knows and maybe even the whole district knows because of social media.”
Student Pastor Deron Henry of Columbia’s The First Family First Baptist Church worked with his congregation to gather the resources needed to bring West’s lessons to the students of Maury County.
“We just want to help our community, and we want to help them with all we can do,” Henry said. “This is something that has not been done to my knowledge in this area, at least to this level. So that is why we wanted to bring him in.”
After consulting with MCPS Supervisor of Counseling & Mental Health Dr. Robb Killen, he began making preparations for West’s week-long tour in the spring.
Zion’s Upper Campus Principal Adam Thomas said the assembly gave students a chance to be reinforced with guidance they have already received, hearing it from a new perspective.
“It’s not just us, it’s other people saying the same things,” Thomas said. “His message is very powerful and we really appreciate him being here. Even for the kids that have no concept doing these things, there are things that we do, whether we think it is an issue or not, which can be issues for other people, and we need to be considerate of what is going on in their lives.”
Last school year, several incidents of bullying at Mt. Pleasant High School, including a video of one student punching another, led to parents and students sharing their stories and concerns with regional news organizations.
In Columbia, Cox Middle School also saw reports of disciplinary issues in what Principal Dr. Tim Webb, the former Tennessee education commissioner, labeled as chaotic and a poor learning environment.
Since then, reports show an upturn in behavior as well as attendance within the school district.
Killen sat in on West’s afternoon assembly at Spring Hill Middle School.
“It aligns perfectly with what we have been teaching the students as far as procedures and policy,” Killen said. “He is making it cool for students to stand up for each other.”
He also commended West for covering the topics of exclusion as a form of bullying as well as sexual bullying primarily brought about by “sexting,” the sending and receiving of sexually explicit messages and images.
Early this year, the school board implemented new policies with greater regard to cyber bullying issues and other off campus incidents, along with new district standards on how to approach students in crisis.
Now, if something happens off campus, educators and counselors can step in with the understanding those incidents still impact a student’s learning environment.
These new administrative changes are joined by the implementation of a new bullying reporting app, STOPit, on four of the county’s campuses.
“Our goal is to empower the bystanders — that is the group we want to target,” Killen said. “If we can have students looking out for each other, then that can be a great place for students. We need to make sure that internment exists in the school.”
Killen said because there are so many mental health issues that affect students outside of the classroom, eliminating those problems on campus allows educators and counselors to better address other issues so they can help prepare students become career and college ready.
The best way to create that environment is to develop a strong sense of community in each classroom, Killen said.
But as West shared at the end of his presentation, it is the responsibility of each and every student to take part and enforce a safe environment for themselves and their peers.
“Be wise,” West said. “Let’s quit complaining about our schools and never let anybody write your story. I always love a good story.”