WATERLOO — An anti-bullying and suicide awareness advocate urged an auditorium full of students Wednesday to respect their peers and tolerate differences.
“Be the difference in others’ lives,” Kirk Smalley told the overflow crowd from five school districts at Hawkeye Community College’s Tama Hall.
Smalley, moving up and down the auditorium’s aisles during his presentation, turned to a girl and added: “Sweetie, do you actually understand you could be somebody’s hero?”
Sixty-eight students in Oklahoma City’s Upward Bound program played that role for Smalley, who lives near Stillwater, Okla., months after his 11-year-old son, Ty, killed himself May 13, 2010. Upon hearing Ty’s story, they created the group Stand for the Silent, which now has chapters across the country and throughout the world.
That includes Cedar Valley Stand for the Silent, which organized the event along with the groups Alive and Running and the HCC student-run Minds, Action, People, Society Club.
Attending the event were 190 fifth- through eighth-graders from Nashua-Plainfield Community Schools, fifth- through eighth-graders from St. Athanasius School in Jesup, 40 students from Waterloo’s three public high schools, about 15 junior and senior high students from Cedar Falls Community Schools, and students from Hudson High School.
Stand for the Silent has provided the platform for Smalley and his wife, Laura, to bring their message of standing up for victims of bullying to more than 1 million children at more than 1,000 schools so far.
Smalley set large photos of five children, including his son, on chairs on the auditorium’s stage. All had committed suicide.
“Maybe you can help me to make sure this right here doesn’t happen to another kid, to another family,” he said, pointing to one of the photos. “I realize, guys, it takes a lot of strength, it takes a lot of courage to be the one that can stand up.”
Smalley said it has been 2,764 days since his son died. “On that particular day, Ty was sitting in the gym with his best friend,” he said, when the boy who had been bullying him for two years attacked. Ty decided to retaliate and was caught by a teacher.
“They always manage to see the second kid take a swing,” said Smalley. “That’s what happened to my boy. He was suspended for three days.”
Ty was taken home by his mother and told to do homework and chores while she headed back to work. “Instead, my baby killed himself on my bedroom floor,” said Smalley. When his wife came home, she found Ty had shot himself.
“Ever since that day, Laura and I have pretty much been traveling all over this country,” said Smalley, who works in construction. They have connected with many families of children who committed suicide during those years. “I have a list of 55,000 children that have taken their lives over the past seven years because of bullying.”
He warned the audience it might be hard for him to keep his composure throughout the presentation. Smalley showed them “I love you” in American Sign Language — raising the thumb, pointer and pinkie fingers while holding down the two other fingers — and invited them to flash it if he was having difficulty. The sign has come to mean “I’ve got your back” among those involved in Stand for the Silent.
Plenty of people made the sign throughout his talk, and many in the audience could be heard sniffling themselves as he told heartbreaking stories of bullying victims. When organizers of the event saw someone having a hard time in the audience they would run a rubber bracelet stamped “I am somebody” to them.
Smalley said someone can be bullied with a look, an action, a text message or in numerous ways online. He asked those in attendance to take one of the cards being handed out at the door pledging them to stand up to bullies and to stand with their victims. They could sign and date the cards.
“Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for our young people ages 10 to 25 years old,” said Smalley. “It’s second only to car wrecks.”
He cited another statistic that one of every four children will not only think about suicide, they will also make a plan to kill themselves before they graduate from high school.
“There ain’t no way I’m living with that number,” he said. “We’ve got to make that stop, don’t we?”