COLUMBIA — John Esterly, a member of the Center Project, made a distinction between bullying and hate crimes at a town hall meeting last week.
“Bullying is when you throw a tomato at a gay man’s house," he said. "A hate crime is when you burn that same man’s home to the ground simply because you don’t like him.”
Ninety percent of people who are incarcerated for hate crimes have backgrounds in bullying, Esterly added. "So our real goal here should be to tackle the issue of bullying before it escalates to something like a hate crime."
The meeting brought police officers, school counselors, state representatives and the mayor together at the Boone County Heath Department to talk about bullying in Columbia.
Dana Harris, an outreach counselor at Oakland Junior High School, said schools have an opportunity to teach kids early on that bullying is unacceptable and to stop the trend .
Harris said a key strategy at her school has been to teach bystanders to speak up.
“We know that the majority of bullying is done for an audience," Harris said. "So we want to show kids who are watching these behaviors that they have a voice in this too."
Sgt. Barbara Buck of the Columbia Police Department agreed that people need to speak up and work together if they want to see any real change.
“We can’t help unless people report it,” Buck said. “But if we can form partners with the public, there isn’t any problem we can’t tackle.”
Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid said that spreading awareness in the community is the most important thing to be done and that we should never assume there’s enough of it out there.
McDavid recalled a memory from high school where a friend on the basketball team was bullied.
“They wouldn’t serve him at the restaurant we went to because he was black,” he said. “I didn’t even know those things happened.”
McDavid said he remembered feeling like a coward because he didn’t say anything.
“We don’t intervene because we’re afraid for our own health, or we don’t want to be troubled,” he said. “But we must never underestimate, we must never sell short, what we can do when we choose to speak up.”