Kevin Epling, father of the boy named in Michigan’s anti-bullying law, spoke to a community of parents, students and educators gathered in the auditorium at Clague Middle School in Ann Arbor about Michigan’s anti-bullying law Jan. 18.
His energy and urgency to educate and prevent bullying and harassment has not wavered since 2002, when his son, Matthew, committed suicide after being bullied and hazed at the end of his eighth grade year.
“We have to talk about it no matter how much it hurts.”
According to a survey that Epling shared, most parents find bullying scarier than terrorism. During his presentation, he highlighted national and international movements by big names such as comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and the late technology pioneer Steve Jobs.
In addition to sharing some of the humiliating acts his son underwent, Epling shared trend data and stories from students he has befriended over the years. His wife, Tammy, sat in the first row quietly watching her husband speak. When asked how it feels to hear what her child went through weeks before his death, she responded, “It’s hard to hear, but it also heals, knowing that we are helping.”
The Eplings are Helping
In addition to being instrumental in the passing of Michigan’s anti-bullying law, Kevin and Tammy have been educating and raising awareness through student, parent and community presentations several times a month. This is in addition to full-time jobs, reaching out to other victims of bullying, and contributions to state and national movements.
When Matt Epling was a victim of bullying in 2002, tolerance was still the norm, Kevin said. The school told him that there was nothing they could do about his child being hazed since it was the last day of school. With new legislation, all school districts have to think through and write a detailed anti-bullying policy, including school-related bullying off-site or after hours. This has to be completed by June 6 and submitted to the State Board of Education.
Not only will this be the first time schools have a mandated list of expectations and consequences for behaviors identified as bullying, the state will have a catalogue of all the different policies that could be accessed by school districts for ideas on what other schools are doing.
Punishment for crimes often comes too late for the victim and the bully, Epling said. Studies show that bullies display the same behaviors as their victims including truancy, poor self-esteem, drug use and even suicide. Epling reported that 60 percent of former school house bullies end up with a criminal conviction by age 24.
The most effective tools anti-bullying advocates have are prevention, education and raising awareness, Epling said. Epling encourages parents and schools to partner to use bullying incidents as learning points for students. Victims, bullies and bystanders can all learn how to adjust their response to intimidation, emotions, and situations.
“I know all about bullies,” said 9-year-old Ojanis Frometas to the audience after the presentation.
His mom, Sandra Canales, teaches her two boys to learn how to resolve conflicts respectfully at home. Ojanis, a conflict manager at Bach Elementary School in Ann Arbor, says he is able to perform his duties with ease because he has “really good life skills and patience.”