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Column: When silence becomes acceptance

My mind has been drifting to Kenneth Weishuhn quite a bit lately.

For me, Kenneth is frozen in time as a beautiful, bright-eyed, smiling 14-year-old student who changed my life, even though I never met him. He took his life April 14, 2012 and inspired what would become two years of my involvement in a community-wide anti-bullying organization.

When I’ve been thinking of Kenneth lately I’ve been wondering more about what type of aggressive bullying he endured — what hateful message made him feel like he wouldn’t be able to overcome it. Which personal attacks he could no longer endure and what online posts killed his spirit, and eventually claimed his life.

Because of Kenneth, I had the opportunity to work with some phenomenal people who have been working to build safe, inclusive communities across the country for more than 20 years. The Not In Our Town organization, in short, is a movement to stop hate and address bullying. With its assistance, we were able to build our own Marshalltown Project which engaged with community leaders to find ways to raise awareness and prevention. The idea was we never wanted a child like Kenneth to feel like he had nowhere to turn — that we would showcase an entire community network of support.

Among some of my fondest memories of our efforts was an “orange out” held at the Marshall County Courthouse. We manufactured our signature Not In Our Town T-shirts and invited the public to take a visible stand against bullying. Hundreds attended, creating a sea of orange that marked our unity.

Another highlight was working with dozens of high school students in Marshalltown to raise awareness about bullying and talk about prevention. We brought in speakers, movies and training to help engage and empower them. We talked about things like kindness, compassion and The Golden Rule.

The students formed a Not In Our Town Club and made their own goals to address bullying. On one crisp, autumn evening the students displayed a chain of hundreds of linked notes about kindness that spread around the entirety of Leonard Cole Field at the Bobcats’ halftime. The football team wore Not In Our Town decals and the marching band wore the orange shirts. While nearly all of those students have graduated by now, a Not In Our Town student club continues its work at MHS.

Another powerful display was a pledge we circulated around the community. It was signed by nearly 2,500 people and was published over several pages in the newspaper. The hope was that anyone struggling with bullying would see how much support they have.

The pledge reads: “I pledge to take a stand against any and all hateful actions. I feel that negative actions toward any person based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, ability or any other factor are unacceptable. In acts of hate and intolerance, I feel that my silence is acceptance, and in order to combat hateful actions, I will commit to change, speak up and do what I can to remedy the situation. I will express such actions are intolerable in our community.”

Perhaps this is why I’ve been thinking of Kenneth so much lately — because silence has become acceptance. Because I’ve endured nearly two years of personal and professional attacks and haven’t spoken up. Because my position hasn’t allowed me to express that such actions are intolerable in our community.

Contact Abigail Pelzer
at apelzer@newtondaily

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