Bullying awareness movie to be shown at Edison Theatre Saturday

It might begin with something as simple as an insult. “You’re fat.”

“You can’t do anything.”

“You are ugly.”

“Nobody likes you.”

The abuse might worsen—getting ganged up on, being hit, being beaten up.

It might get even worse—midnight texts that denigrate, insult, terrify. Emails that do the same. In a world of instant and constant communication, the end of the school day is no relief.

It all might sound like no big deal. After all, “kids will be kids,” right? They will grow out of it, right? They are just words, right?

But the price of bullying is higher than most people can imagine. Every 30 minutes in this country, a child commits suicide because they have been bullied past the point of tolerance—and that doesn’t count the countless numbers who dread going to school each day, or whose performance suffers at school due to the stress of being bullied, according to national mental health sources. 

Which is why local teacher and speech therapist Dee DiGioia has been working during recess and her spare time on what she calls her “Peace Project,” an anti-bully program that helps students deal with being bullied and seeks to prevent bullying from happening in the first place. She did a school-wide assembly last year. She calls Peace Project “a recess alternative for kids to participate in activities such as learning sign language and playing games. It’s in a safe environment for those who don’t always have positive experiences on the playground because this is where many of the problems occur.”

DiGioia, a Mono County Office of Education language speech therapist who works in the schools, said she has had many students come to her afraid.

“I had a little girl come to me recently, just absolutely shaking,” she said. “She was truly fearful because the kids had ganged up on her and she didn’t know what to do. No one should feel alone in this.”

DiGioia decided to take it one step further this year. She made a bullying awareness movie called “Which Side Will You Chose.” The movie premiers at the Edison Theatre this Saturday.

Volunteer actors were Melanie Moyer, Kendall Lach, Maya Weber, Jamie Peabody, Cassidy Moyer, Lisbeth Perez, Gregory Young, Blaire Lee, Noelle Deinken, and Grant Bentley.

“Which Side Will You Chose” is aimed at elementary students and features almost a dozen local actors, including several students from both Mammoth Elementary and Mammoth Middle schools who have never acted before.

It is set in an elementary school with one student mercilessly bullying another student, calling her names and pushing her.

DiGioia based the movie on an anti-bullying concept called “bucket dipping” where students can either fill a bucket with good words and actions, or dip into a bucket with their negative words and actions.

The movie is broken down into several sections, which can be used as teaching guides for classrooms, DiGioia said.

DiGioia said the movie project took a lot of work by community members, including Noelle Deinken, president of Sunrise Rotary (who acted in the play and gave a donation to help the project); Mammoth Hospital, which allowed the film to be shot in one of their rooms; and many others, including the parents who got their children to all the rehearsals.

But there’s a problem.

Last week, DiGioia was informed she could no longer do her bullying awareness work at the school during school hours, nor could the movie be shown there.

“I was told this wasn’t part of my job description and that I had to stop doing Peace Project,” she said. “It was one of the saddest days of my life, to go to the students last week and tell them we could no longer meet and do Peace Project. They didn’t understand. They were in tears, I was in tears. I don’t understand either, but I don’t think this is right.”

She noted that a bully awareness program she has been urging the school to adopt, called the Olweus system, will be instituted in the schools—but not until next year.

Connie Moyer, a mother of one of two of the students who are in the movie, was puzzled, too.

“My daughters came home and said, ‘Mom, there’s no place to go now,’” she said. “I called the county office of education and they said since she was not a counselor, they were exposed to liability issues, in case something went wrong. But she wasn’t counseling the kids—they have someone for that—she was doing this on her own time, as a volunteer, after seeing how much the kids were struggling. I don’t understand it.”

DiGioia said the directive came down from her employer, the Mono County Office of Education. Superintendent Stacey Adler was sick Thursday when the Mammoth Times called and referred questions to Jennie Huh.

“The office of education has contracted with Dee DiGioia as a speech therapist,” said Jennie Huh, the director of the county’s special education. “Case loads can be quite demanding, and her primary responsibility is to those students she is contracted to serve. She does have permission to do any activity after her contracted hours are completed, as long as the school gives permission.”

Huh also added that the county’s attorney had concerns that the county could be exposed to liability, given that DiGioia is not trained as a counselor.

Ana Danielson works for the county office of education and is the director for a new, statewide, multi-year initiative to help students combat mental health issues.

Danielson said the office received a grant to do the Olweus system program and it will allow the schools to begin training for the program in April 2013.

“The Olweus program has been shown to be effective and is backed by statistics showing its effectiveness,” Danielson said.

“Bullying has been such a hot topic,” she said. “We really have to understand what it means to make sure that we know the difference between small incidents that are hurtful but might not be bullying. This program gives us that clarity.”

Ann Erikson Gettis was also surprised to learn DiGioia has been prevented from continuing her work with kids during recess hours.

Gettis’ son, Jeremiah, committed suicide six years ago, partly in response to being bullied. She lives in Minnesota and has a nonprofit bully awareness organization. She connected with DiGioia via Facebook and said she believes DiGioia is following well-established principles in her work.

“I have been trained under the Olweus system and her work follows these principles,” she said.

“When they tell her it’s not her job, that puzzles me. It’s one of the first principles of bullying awareness work.

“It’s everyone’s job to prevent bullying.”

What: The public is invited to the premiere of "Which Team Will You Choose?”
 Seating is limited, reservations recommended. Call 760-934-6592.
When: Saturday, Sept. 29. Two show times: 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Where: Edison Theatre, 100 College Parkway, Mammoth Lakes.
For more information about the movie, go to www.starfishdee@ymail.com

Characters and volunteer actors:
Kiara (student target of the bullying): Melanie Moyer
Tina (student who is bullying): Kendall Lach
Jess (student bystander): Maya Weber
LeighAnn (student bystander): Jamie Peabody
Deanna (student bystander): Cassidy Moyer
Judy (student bystander): Lisbeth Perez
Coach: Gregory Young
BF, Bucketfiller team leader: Blaire Lee
Dip, Bucketdipper team leader: Noelle Deinken
Mr. Smith the Music Teacher: Grant Bentley
Director and Executive Producer: Dee DiGioia