PITTSFIELD — Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler has said that his mission is to build a stronger, safer community. In his most recent effort to achieve that goal, he is traveling the county with actor and comic Wayne Soares to teach students skills to combat bullying in schools.
"It all comes down to: Treat someone as you would want them to treat you," Bowler told a group of ninth graders Thursday in the Taconic High School auditorium.
Bowler, Soares and Sheriff's Office Deputy Superintendent Brad Little spoke to the students about how they can help themselves or other students who fall victim to bullying. The team visited Herberg Middle School and Reid Middle School on Wednesday and has plans to continue its campaign throughout the county.
Soares, who worked as a radio broadcaster at ESPN for 10 years, shared stories about emotional scars left behind from his own childhood on Cape Cod. Being raised by his grandmother, there were people who told him he never would amount to anything because he didn't have a father.
Soares said that he turned to an older crowd for friendship, but those people ended up hurting him, both emotionally and physically.
His grandmother, though, encouraged him to be confident and become the best he could at the things he was good at, like sports.
"If you're someone at Taconic High School who gets bullied, you can never, ever, ever let them get into your mind with negativity," he said.
He also shared tales of instances where people stepped up to be kind to someone in need and the positive results it had on their lives. One ninth grade student raised his hand.
"Do you ever feel like you're the odd man out?" the student asked Soares. "That's how I feel sort of now."
Soares told the student that he has felt that way. He encouraged the student to focus his attention on becoming best at what he enjoys doing, like reading or acting.
"When you were bullied, what kept you going?" another student asked.
"My grandma," he said. "She always said, 'Wayne you're just as good as everyone else; you're not better, you're just as good.'"
Soares suggested that students who feel bullied work on building up their own self-esteem and, when confronted by bullies, make eye contact and speak firmly.
During the assembly, Hannah Bourdon, 14, asked for advice on how to support a friend in need even when it becomes emotionally draining. Bowler advised her to "be persistent" and "not to give up on that individual."
School adjustment counselor Michelle Bienvenue also jumped in and suggested that, in those instances, she can go with her friend to seek help from a professional.
After the event, Bourdon said that the friend she was referring to is now in a "good place." Bullying was worse in middle school than it is at Taconic, she said.
These days, though, bullying comes in the form of fights.
"I feel like there is a lot of drama," she said about behavior in schools.
For Bowler, communication is key when faced with bullies.
"If you're having situations or problems with your peer group or in school or in sports, don't hold those feelings in," he said.
As a police officer, some of the most devastating calls Bowler remembers responding to were when individuals who were battling with self-esteem or mental illness took their own lives.
In those moments, Bowler said, he wondered what could have gone differently if the person was able to talk out their problems with someone who could help.
Little said that, oftentimes, people don't know when they are being a bully. They think they're just being funny, he said.
With the prevalence of social media, people can remain anonymous while being mean to other people, he said.
"When you're on social media, be aware of what you're doing," Little said. "Please chose to be kind."
Said Bowler: "You don't want to be the cause of somebody else doing that to themselves; that, too, can cause emotional scars."
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at email@example.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.