By Meg McFarland
Photo: Sisters Sydney & Elizabeth pose for a photo at Sip n’ Safari at the Greenville zoo.

In some schools, being untouchable and feared earned you popularity points among peers.  Being a bully is sometimes considered “cool” for young children. Many of these kids have almost no guidance in their life letting them know it is not cool.  There are all types of bullying including verbal, social and physical. Did you know that South Carolina is one of the worst states in the country to have a bullying and youth violence problem?  South Carolina has been ranked No. 10 in Wallethub’s analysis of 2016’s States with the Biggest Bullying Problems. How can we prevent this for the future?

Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia puts forth his efforts every year to try and help prevent bullying and youth violence within the city.  “The impact of youth violence in schools is tremendous,” says Lauren Harper, advisor of policy and communications for the mayor. “Within our state alone this is an epidemic in which we are trying our best to prevent for the future.  Although bullying and youth violence have increased over the years, we will not accept it.”

This past March, Benjamin, in collaboration with the Richland Library, City of Columbia Parks and Recreation and the Columbia Police Department, hosted a book fair for children as a part of National Youth Violence Prevention Week.  The week’s purpose is to raise awareness and educate students, teachers, school administrators, parents and the public on effective ways to reduce youth violence.

As a part of his efforts to end youth violence and bullying within our state, Benjamin spoke with students regarding these issues in addition to reading a book related to youth violence to the students.  Working as an intern in Benjamin’s office, I witnessed his efforts to end bullying and youth violence within the city.

“Youth violence is an issue in our state and we simply cannot ignore it,” says Ariel Cathcart, project manager for the mayor’s office.  “It is our hope that through programming, support for our students and families, and hosting these events, we will address root changes of the issue itself.  Encouraging reading to these students can be used as a direct aid.”

The truth comes out from sisters Elizabeth and Sydney Shealy, who were both victims of bullying when they were young.  The Shealy sisters are two years apart and were both raised in Charleston, S.C. They both attend the University of South Carolina where they are both in different sororities and have both proven to overcome their childhood issues of bullying.  

“Being overweight was always a struggle for me when I was in school,” says Elizabeth, the older of the two sisters.”  “Although we come from a loving household, our parents were always working and never had time to cook us healthy meals and this resulted in me getting bullied terribly in elementary school.”  By the age of 10, Shealy weighed over 200 pounds and could never hear the end of it.

She recalls a time at the lunch table in 5th grade when girls would call her by a different name just so they could talk about her when she was in earshot, not knowing that she knew exactly what they were doing.  The constant bullying Shealy experienced led her through a downward spiral of drugs and alcohol by the time she reached the 7th grade. Although she lost much of the weight, she had a terrible reputation of being a drug user once she hit high school and no one wanted their daughter to be around her.  

Shealy came through school right behind Elizabeth.  Having kids remember who her older sister was made it difficult for Shealy to make friends as well.  She was known as the, “fat alcoholic girl’s younger sister.” “I have always supported Elizabeth,” says Shealy.  “Although her weight caused both of us to experience terrible childhoods, I will never resent her for it. Instead, I have helped her and have always been the friend she always wanted that never teased her.”  

In addition to Elizabeth’s abuse of drugs and alcohol, she ended up getting caught with marijuana in the 10th grade which ended in an expulsion from her school.  This opened up the eyes of the sisters’ parents and they sought help for their suffering daughters. After much counseling and therapy, both girls graduated from school with excellent GPAs and both overcame their issues of bullying.  

Now that Shealy is clean from drugs and has become fit and healthy, the two sisters have gained many friends in college and look back on their childhood as something they were able to prevail over.  “I want to be an advocate for youth violence and I want it to stop,” says Elizabeth. “I don’t ever want a child to go through what I had to go through. I hope with the mayor’s vision of preventing youth violence and bullying, no child will ever have to.”  

In conclusion, the problem with bullying and youth violence is still an issue in today’s society.  We cannot assume this issue will stop one day. Without hearing and listening to stories told, we can be blind that it is even happening.  By raising awareness as best as we can is one of the most effective ways in trying to stop it.

McFarland is a public relations senior