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The Phoenix Rising for Phoebe Prince

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Attention readers: The following is the first of a two-part series.

I was bullied once.

I was about 10 years old. Unfortunately, many kids can't protect themselves like I once did. Even worse, so much bullying today has turned to torment. Yesteryear's boyhood brawls have transformed into today's torture.

It's a new day in which social networks have created cyber-bullying. Why harass a kid in a school hall with a handful of kids when one can use Facebook and YouTube to bully him or her repeatedly in full view of the whole world? In so doing, the public damage and consequences are instantly and exponentially escalated.

ABC News reported a few months ago that the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center estimates that roughly 30 percent of U.S. youth are either bullies or subjects of bullying. Moreover, ABC News added, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine linked bullying and being bullied to suicide in 13 countries.

In the past few years, we have seen a string of tragedies in which bullies received no penalties (or very lenient ones) for bullying that included criminal harassment, physical injuries, stalking, rape and even death.

Case in point recently was Phoebe Prince, a beautiful 15-year-old new student from Ireland who the New York Daily News described as being "driven to suicide by cyber-bullies" on Jan. 14, 2010, when she hanged herself. Her body was discovered by her 12-year-old sister.

In March 2010, six Massachusetts teens -- four females and two males -- were indicted on felony charges of unrelentingly and mercilessly tormenting Phoebe. One of the males, being 18, was charged with statutory rape. The teens allegedly didn't approve of her dating an older football player. So they assaulted and threatened Phoebe not only at school but also off campus and on the social networks of Twitter, Craigslist and Facebook.

Sadly, according to the Boston Globe, in court Phoebe's mother read Phoebe's last phone text about her bullies before hanging herself, "It would be easier, if he or any one of them handed me a noose.''

And yet, through a series of plea deals, last week on May 5, the bullies were let off with minimal terms of probation and community services.

While tougher penalties, new cyber-crime laws and anti-bullying legislation might provide some aid, I believe those solutions are merely external Band-Aids for internal wounds that require us all to encourage a better humanity in ourselves and one another.

For all the good the Internet and social networks have provided, they have also provided a great platform for venues of disdain and belittling. No longer do we have to wait for judge and jury. No longer is a person innocent until proven guilty. Just a rush to judgment and a rash of mudslinging will do.

Disdain is in vogue now. And it can be shown without even the inconvenience of leaving home or letting your identity be known. Public humiliation is the new entertainment. With social networks, gossip has grown into an epidemic, and our keyboards have become our new ammunition.

Though the First Amendment protects even hate language, it doesn't justify a nation that has become bent on belittling. The Bill of Rights was not given to abandon civility. We must return to a nation where mutual respect is king -- where I am my brother's keeper and we agree to disagree agreeably. It's time to renew our commitment to the basic premises of humanity: Do unto others as you would have them do to you, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

If our children hear and see us denigrating others, should we not expect them to bully others? Is it really that much of a shock to hear a 10-year-old son in Riverside, Calif., is being charged with fatally shooting his father, learning he was the son of a local neo-Nazi leader who spawned hatred of others? Was it any surprise to hear the son had past problems with antagonism and fighting, when he was stuck in the middle of a bitter divorce filled with allegations of abuse?

I might play a tough guy who protects victims from bad guys on screen, but in real life I'm also an advocate for those at-risk, particularly through our KickStartKids foundation. My wife, Gena, and I consider KickStartKids our life's mission. KickStartKids means building strong moral character in our youth through the martial arts. Its purpose is to help raise self-esteem and instill discipline and respect that so many children are lacking today.

Two other warriors who are raising the bar of youth decency are our friends Darrell and Sandy Scott, who spearhead Rachel's Challenge, in memory of their beautiful and kind daughter, Rachel, who was murdered at Columbine High School over a decade ago.

Rachel said, "I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same." (On June 22-24, 2011, the second Rachel's Challenge Educators' Summit will be on "The Transforming a Climate of Bullying Into Positive Behaviors.")

There is a promise in Scripture, "What others mean for harm, God will turn around and use for the good."

Beauty can come from ashes.

I believe the phoenix of kindness and respect can rise again across the U.S.

But only if each of us is willing to ask ourselves: How does what I do and say reflect decency and respect of others?

(In Part 2, I'll discuss further ways we can help those who are bullied and tame those who are bullies.)

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