In Lancaster California it started with a counselor.
In 2008, 15-year-old Jeremiah Lassiter shot himself dead in an Acton school bathroom. In 2010, 13-year-old Seth Walsh died from injuries he suffered attempting to hang himself in Tehachapi.
Both towns are less than 50 miles from Lancaster.
T-R PHOTO BY DAVID ALEXANDER
Patrice O’Neill, executive producer and CEO of The Working Group, speaks to community leaders at the Tremont on Main Wednesday afternoon while a Not In Our Town film crew shoots footage for its national series about anti-bullying efforts.
The two suicides hit home with Lauri Massasri, who decided she didn't want to wait for a horrific instance like those to happen before someone did something. She decided to start a Not In Our School program.
Communities like Lancaster across the U.S. have jumped on board with the Not In Our Town anti-bullying effort, but, as big as the civic movement has become, it is still community driven, said Patrice O'Neill, executive producer and CEO of The Working Group-the group spearheading the national Not In Our Town effort.
"The Not In Our Town group hasn't invented anything," she said. "It has been created and invented by communities. And we have shared it."
O'Neill, her assistant and director of photography make their way to communities, filming Not In Our Town efforts and providing guidance for community leaders. The trio filmed in Marshalltown Wednesday, and O'Neill took time to meet with community leaders at the Tremont to discuss how to ramp up efforts.
O'Neill and her team have been documenting community efforts like Marshalltown's for 17 years and have produced a series of PBS films.
Those communities that have been most successful with Not In Our Town, she said, are those who bring their community leaders together with local media.
She said Marshalltown is different from most cities in which she has filmed not only because few communities choose to act before tragedy strikes, but also because the newspaper rarely leads the way.
"We don't want to be those statistical accounts," said Denny Grabenbauer, chair of the Marshalltown Board of Supervisors.
Many of those present at the meeting Wednesday afternoon said it's important to look for solutions that don't point the finger at anyone. As a community, we need to look at every avenue and every venue where bullying thrives.
Joa LaVille, youth services director at the Marshalltown Public Library and president of the steering committee for Immigrant Allies, said we would do well to look in the mirror.
"All of us have the potential to be a bully," she said. "If we can identify that common ground that we have, and realize it's not about labeling someone a bully or a victim, it's about the choices we make we take the whole 'us' versus 'them' part out of it."
O'Neill said she and her group act as a facilitator, an agent to bolster and document efforts. They continue to film the movement sparked by the group's documentary "Light in the Darkness," but strive to ensure each movement bears the distinct signature of the community that spawned it.
She said the effort lives or dies by the willingness of those involved.
"Who is going to be there to make that jump?" she said.
Carol Hibbs, CEO of the Marshalltown YMCA/YWCA, raised the question of how to best use energy and resources in this preliminary phase.
O'Neill affirmed the notion held by many of those in attendance that the effort begins by changing the culture. She said exposing the rough spots and challenges are important. As the effort gets off the ground, it is going to get more difficult.
Jana Enfield, with Child Abuse and Prevention Services, said starting an effort to quash ideas of bullying in the home is something that would benefit Marshalltown, and it plays into the idea of changing the culture. After all, she said, children learn from their parents just as much as they learn from anyone.
"This is so much larger. It's our town, our state, our nation," said Aiddy Phomvisay, principal at Marshalltown High School.
The program's message-one of acceptance, compassion and inclusion-is simple enough that few could argue with its sentiment, O'Neill said. But, it is going to take time to get people to open up about their experiences, many of which are likely to be raw. That is part of the challenge that lies ahead.
Empowering bullying victims by giving them a voice is the strongest catalyst to change, she said. Shining a light on the dark and ugly elements of a community instead of denying they exist, is the first step in ending the torment bullying victims endure.
"Stories often open people up to change, both the need for change and the possibility," O'Neill said. "Whatever is the undercurrent in the town, hopefully, it will surface."
The film crew will remain in Marshalltown through the end of the week, documenting Rachel's Challenge in the local schools and the courthouse rally Thursday.