Bullying is a problem that affects millions of students of all ages and races.
Statistics show that at least 1 out of 4 children and teens experience bullying, and 9 out of 10 students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) report that they have experienced harassment at school. As many as 160,000 students stay home on any given day because they're afraid of being bullied, and one out of five kids admits to engaging in bullying behavior.
But a group of high school students at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre is doing something about it.
Under the guidance of industry professionals at Florida's largest award-winning professional regional theatre, area students are tackling the issue as they prepare to produce the drama The Laramie Project on the Theatre's professional stage. The show will take place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 8.
The Laramie Project is about the brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. As interviews with local citizens and officials unveil the hate crime and its aftermath, the play explores the depths to which humanity can sink and the heights of compassion in which we are capable.
To prepare for the play, students have spent the past two months immersed in dramaturgical research through partnerships with various groups in the community, including the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) of the Palm Beaches. The church has participated in weekly panel discussions with the project's students to help them understand the issues faced by all ages and genders in the LGBT community.
"Bullying begins young, and I think that now is not a moment too soon for high school students to be addressing these issues," said Rev. Dr. Lea Brown, Senior Pastor of the MCC of the Palm Beaches. "The public outcry after Matthew Shepard's death was absolutely needed. Hate crimes like his continue to happen every single day, and there are real people in 2012 living in fear every day about what will happen to them if they are outed [as being LGBT]."
According to state data, Palm Beach County schools have reported one of the state's highest rates of bullying, with one bullying incident for every 95 students. The state rate is one incident for every 423 students.
"Bullying is a very real issue that is continuing today all around the country, and many children who are LGBT – or are perceived to be – are the targets of such abuse," said Jason Parsley, editor in chief of South Florida Gay News, a news partner in the project. "It will take more than just laws to end this epidemic. The focus must also be on changing people's hearts and minds, and it is through productions like this, and the support of organizations like the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, that we will accomplish that goal."
Known as the Youth Artists' Chair, the project is a free summer program that aligns high school students with individual Theatre staff members for one-on-one mentoring and guidance during the creation process of the show. The production's cast and creative team of 16 ranges in age from 13 – 18.
"This program is a unique opportunity for students to receive graduate school-level training ground as teenagers, and we are so grateful to the community groups have come forward to help educate our students about the depth of the production's subject matter," said Julie Rowe, the Theatre's director of education. "This enables our Theatre to be both educational and share real life lessons for future generations."
In local schools, the Department of Safe Schools aligns with major networks such as the PACER's National Center for Bullying Prevention to participate in an anti-bullying campaign each year. Palm Beach County schools have also linked the district's violence prevention efforts and bullying awareness and intervention website to prevent bullying in the lives of local children.
And the learning process can ultimately help stop the bullying that leads to hate crimes, educating both participants and audience members.
"I applaud the Maltz Jupiter Theatre for producing this important production. The tragic murder of Matthew Shepard is an unfortunate part of history," Parsley said. "This production isn't just an award-winning play; it's a history lesson. There are many young people who don't know about the story of Matthew Shepard, and it is only through this type of education that we can hope his situation won't ever be repeated."