More than 125 students and parents came to the Columbus Public Library auditorium Monday afternoon for an anti-bullying rally a month after 13-year-old Devin Brown committed suicide in his bedroom after a series of bullying incidents at Rothschild Middle School.
As the Muscogee County School District was closed for a furlough day, local teen music groups YNCK and Fates Fortune headlined the free event that featured speakers, music, food, prizes and a main message:
Bullying is never OK -- and it's always OK to speak up and tell an adult about it.
One of the speakers, local R&B and hip-hop artist D'Ambra Renee, asked who in the crowd has been bullied or knows somebody who has been bullied. About half raised their hand.
Then she asked how many have acted against bullying or told an adult. About one-third raised their hand.
"We need to take a stand," said Renee, 20, a graduate of Early College Academy, "because enough is enough and it's getting crazy and it's getting bad. We all need to stand together and let people know that this bullying is no longer going to continue, because we are losing too many young people who have great lives ahead of them but would not be able to do that because they have too many people in their ears telling them that they can't and not enough people telling them they can.
"I am a product of 'I can' because my parents were there for me. So y'all need to be there for each other."
Starting in the third grade, Renee said, she was bullied at Wesley Heights Elementary and three middle schools: Fort, East Columbus and Richards.
Because she was short and had big lips, glasses and braces, Renee said, bullies drew distasteful pictures of her. They stalked her. They crawled under her stall in restrooms. They jumped her.
"I felt like if I said anything to anyone," she said, "it would just get worse."
So she started to defend herself by fighting, but that got her suspended and expelled; it didn't stop the bullying.
Then one day in church, Renee heard the pastor preach, "Never let anyone tell you that you can't do anything. Never let anyone belittle you and make you feel worthless."
And she took it to heart. She surrounded herself with positive influences. She turned to singing and dancing, and her grades improved, her confidence soared, and she made more friends.
"It felt great to not go home crying every day and feel worthless," Renee said.
One of the students who attended the rally, Carver High sophomore Jhanai Brown, said she was bullied for being too pretty and too tall and wearing unusual clothes when she was at Phenix City Intermediate School. Now, she is admired for those qualities at Carver and she models for a local agency.
"People say that words do not hurt you, but words are powerful," said Jhanai, who isn't related to Devin. "You could say something and not even mean to hurt somebody's feelings, but the way you say it and the force behind it can be so meaningful.
"Nobody should feel like they should kill themselves to have peace of mind."
Latisha Littleton of Madam Money Productions organized the rally with Kimberly Wilson of SOA Entertainment.
"When you have an influential voice, it's important that you speak back to the kids and you empower them to speak up," Little ton said.
Bullying has become too costly to ignore, she said.
"When you lose lives," Littleton said, "one life is too many."
Monica Brewer said her daughter nearly was another death sparked by bullying.
Her daughter was bullied at Rothschild, and the bully followed her to high school at Early College Academy, which then was housed at Kendrick High School.
Brewer said her daughter ended up swallowing six bottles of pills. Medical personnel pumped her stomach to save her daughter's life, she said.
"To the family of Devin," Brewer told the crowd, "when I heard what happened at Rothschild, it angered me so bad, because I knew the same thing happened to my child. No parent wants to bury their child. None. For you kids who think that's cool, switch it around. What if it was you? What if you were the one getting picked on? And for you parents who think it's OK, quit telling your kids, 'Stop whining. Stop complaining.' You better do something before they do something."
Devin's father, Ray Brown, sat in the auditorium and found comfort in the crowd's support.
"It means something is changing," he said. "People are realizing that there is a problem and something has to change, and this is a good start."ONLINE ONLY
Click on this story at www.ledger-enquirer.com to read the articles about Rothschild Middle School student Devin Brown's suicide and a local psychotherapist's explanation of the link between bullying and suicide.