Bully For Ray Rice! His Message Carries Hope
By Keith Mills
Ravens running back Ray Rice took a deep breath and spoke from the heart.
"This is all about saving lives now," Rice said, "because this bullying thing's really gotten out of hand."
It was 3 p.m. May 5 at Howard High School in Ellicott City.
Rice stood on stage. To his left were representatives from suicide prevention groups, the Howard County school system and police department.
In front of him, sitting in the school auditorium, were hundreds of parents and students. Some were athletes. Some were not. Some were victims, or knew of victims of bullying and cyberbullying -- which is becoming an even more serious issue in area high schools and middle schools.
"My sister was bullied," Rice said, "and I got a call one day from my mother that she had come home from school with a cut under her eye. She had gotten hit by a bully. She was in New York and I was here in Maryland, and I wanted to leave and go right home and take care of it."
Also in front of Rice was the family of Grace McComas, a 15-year-old sophomore at Glenelg High who took her own life in early April after enduring months of receiving scathing and graphic Twitter and text messages.
"The first thing I thought about when I hear of these kids taking their lives is what we could have done to prevent it," Rice said.
Along with Howard County councilman Calvin Ball, Rice co-sponsored the first "Ray of Hope" anti-bullying rally at Howard High.
Maryland first lady Katie O'Malley and Howard County executive Ken Ulman also attended the rally, an idea born when Rice learned of the suicide of McComas and several other students that have been victims of bullies and cyberbullies.
I was the emcee of the event. In my 30 years of broadcasting local sports on television and radio and covering high school sports, I've never been a part of something so powerful, so emotional and so important.
It was powerful because of the blunt honesty from the students, many of them victims themselves. At one point, Rice and O'Malley asked how many students in the audience had been bullied, and an overwhelming majority raised their hands.
At another point, a microphone was placed at the front of the auditorium so the students could share some of their own stories and concerns with Pam Blackwell of the Howard County school system. The line was 40-deep.
It was emotional because of the shockingly serious nature of the issue of cyberbullying. Chris and Dave McComas, Grace's parents, both fought back tears -- Chris from her chair in the front row of the auditorium and Dave from the podium on stage.
With his daughter Cara by his side, Dave McComas nearly broke down twice as he addressed the audience about his daughter's death on Easter Sunday, comparing cyberbulling with long, slow, waterboarding-like torture.
Both he and Chris chronicled a well-documented timeline of forms filed and protocol followed. He said their cries for help fell on deaf ears. At one point, Chris pulled out a sheet of paper with a series of brutal text messages and tweets that Grace's cyberstalker had sent to her.
She asked me to read them. I did, stunned by the explicit use of vulgarity and threats.
Other parents also expressed outrage that their children's cries for help were not being heard and that the teachers and guidance counselors within the Howard County school system either were not doing enough or had their hands tied with bureaucracy.
The rally was important because some change will already be taking place. Ulman addressed the crowd before the rally began, thanking the attendees and Rice for their participation. He was stunned when Glen Weir, the Howard County police officer assigned to Howard High, admitted he was powerless to monitor any dangerous Facebook, Twitter or text messages sent from inside the school building, because his police-issued computer is blocked from receiving them.
Ulman immediately walked back on stage to voice his outrage at the police revelation, turning down a microphone on his way.
"I don't need a microphone for this," Ulman said. "I guarantee I will look into this situation on Monday. We will do everything we can to correct this."
The other potential change will come from school board policy, which Blackwell said had failed in some of the bullying cases, but also challenged the parents to do a better job in monitoring their children's use of Facebook, Twitter and text messages.
"Most of the cyberbullying is taking place away from the school," Blackwell said, "[on] home computer and cell phones."
Through it all, Rice sat side by side with Ball. Rice's usually jovial and amiable persona was replaced by concern, grief, sincerity and shock at what he was hearing.
At the beginning of the rally, he made light of his size in sharing his own story.
"I'm a small guy," Rice said, "and I dealt with bullies on the football field. I'd tell them they'd be in for a long day dealing with me."
During the event, when emotions got high -- and they did many times -- Rice seemed to say the right thing to ease the tension.
"This is a start," Rice said. "There won't be any magic answers today, but we've started the process. Now, we have to keep it going and we have to do it together. The problem is a big one, very serious. The only way to deal with it is to do it together."
Before the rally, Rice met with the media for a question-and-answer period, which had nothing to do with football, just his personal commitment to this crisis.
There was no talk about contracts, missed minicamps or even a training-camp holdout. This was Rice talking from his heart about an issue that has commanded his attention.
PressBox: Ray, why are you here today? Why have you started "Ray of Hope"?
Ray Rice: It's about saving lives, because this bullying thing's really gotten out of hand. You hear so many touching stories and you say: "Why? Why is it going on? What's going on? What can we do to prevent it?" What I want to do is change lives. A lot of what you do is just giving time, especially right now. We want to try and impact as many people as we can and help them do something positive. The bullying thing, quite frankly, is taking its toll.
PB: What would you like the students to leave with after the rally?
RR: I think the first step to recovery in terms of being a victim is to acknowledge that you were a victim. You go forward in life. One thing I know about life is you surround yourself with positive people.
When you're doing the right thing, you end up in good company. Growing up in New Rochelle, N.Y., I grew up around every race possible. It actually set me up for getting along with everyone I came in contact with.
A lot of these kids can relate to me, because I wasn't the prototypical NFL guy. I'm a little guy. I grew up in a small town and I just paved my way throughout life, and I just want to let these kids know that they're not alone and there are people that generally do care about them. I do care about these kids that are getting bullied.
PB: What goes through your mind when you hear about kids actually comitting suicide because they were bullied?
RR: The first thing I thought about was what we could have done to prevent it. A lot of these kids, when they're bullied, it starts out as a small thing. If the problem's not addressed right away, it's never going to get addressed, and then it becomes a big thing. The person that committed suicide, that usually started out as a small thing that eventually turned into a bigger problem.
Right now, this is a start to something. If it's a problem, maybe we can fix it, because there's people you can actually go talk to. I was never afraid to ask for help. That's what I want to preach to these kids who are getting bullied. Ask for help. There's help out there.
There's too much opportunity out there for somebody to go around picking on somebody because of who they are or what they do. Little stuff, it starts out as something little as calling somebody ugly. Little stuff like that is a problem. Report it. It doesn't make you less of a person to report a problem. People do it all the time.
PB: What do you want the parents to take away?
RR: My main message is there is help out there. It's all over the place, and for their kids. The closest resource might be right next to you. For these parents, if you see an early symptom, let's try and address it. You don't want these kids going into depression.
I don't even want to say what happens then. You know what happens, because it's tragic. Life is too precious for people to be going out there and committing suicide. The way the world is structured, we're all blessed with the same opportunity, and that's to breathe fresh air every day and to go out there and make something of yourself.
Bullying just has to stop. There's so many other things out there besides being a bully. It will be a better world without them. I would tell them to come try and bully me, but I promote positive trust. I took my bullying out on the football field. I let those big guys know right away, "You're not going to bully me."
PB: If you could save one kid, I guess that's all that matters, right? Save one life.
RR: Save one life and eventually you'll save a few more. I just come from so much positive energy that I just believe you shouldn't have to do that. I don't care if you play sports. I don't care of you're a scientist, doctor, lawyer.
I don't care whatever you want to be growing up. There's a place in society for everybody. That's why we're in the United States of America, but bullying has no place in it.
PB: We are at a high school now, but would you like to spread this message to middle school and elementary schools as well?
RR: We want to spread this message everywhere. It doesn't matter what age. It starts out as a kid picking on a kid. That could be a kid in kindergarten. That young kid grows up and he feels like he's invincible and he's bullying everybody. He's the kid that gets in trouble.
Then you have a kid who's been picked on since he was in kindergarten. That's all he knows growing up. Sometimes as parents, you have to be a better parent. You know your child is hating and doing all that stuff. Stop it right away. The problems can start essentially in pre-K.
If the teacher is telling you your child is running around hitting people, what do you think he's going to do when he gets older? He's going to run around and hit people, because it's not being addressed. I just think it's a problem all around. It starts at a young age, but carries on as you get older.
Issue 173: May 2012