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Thursday, March 24,2011

Taking a stand against bullying

After their son’s suicide, Kevin and Tammy Epling decided to share his story

by Gabi Moore

Kevin Epling has a feeling. Maybe if his son Matt’s assault had occurred today, instead of when it did — in 2002 — things would have been different.


Maybe Kevin and his wife, Tammy, would have had someone to reach out to when their 14-year-old son came home from the last day of eighth grade and told them he had been attacked by East Lansing High School students as part of a “welcome to high school” hazing ritual.


Maybe the school board wouldn’t have told them it wasn’t the board’s problem anymore, now that school was out. Maybe the police wouldn’t have told them it was up to the school to deal with the situation. Maybe they wouldn’t have been told the assault was just “kids being kids.”


Maybe they wouldn’t be left wondering what happened on that day, 40 days after the assault, that caused Matt to come home from work at Meijer and take his own life.


Maybe they wouldn’t have had to hear the police tell them that their son was simply an “angry young man.”


Maybe Matt never would have been assaulted in the first place.


But then — maybe nothing would have changed. You don’t enlist in the war on bullying, you get drafted. Nothing can ever bring the their son back, but the Eplings think they can stop other parents from going through the same thing by sharing their experiences.


"The Bullycide Project," a theater piece about the struggles of Matt and other victims of bullying, comes to Wharton Center for one performance March 30. The performance grew out of editor Brenda High’s "Bullycide in America," which compiled stories from the Eplings and other parents that have been in their situation.


“It’s a personal choice you have to make,” Kevin Epling said. “It’s not easy. It’s very hard to be public with your life, to share that with other people, because you do want things to be private still. We felt that the problem landed on our doorstep, because nobody ever said, ‘Stop.’ We decided we were going to do something about it because it’s going to help somebody.”


The Eplings have been reaching out — pushing for an anti-bullying law in Michigan, one of the last five states that don’t have such a law — and educating schools and communities. Kevin Epling, now the national co-director of the watchdog group BullyPolice USA, recently returned from Washington, where he was one of 150 activists invited to an anti-bullying summit at the White House.


When the Eplings contributed to the “Bullycide in America” collection, it put them in touch with parents that had gone through the same thing.


“You want to find people like that, and feed off of their strengths,” Kevin Epling said.


The Eplings met Lori Thompson, artistic director of the Bullycide Project and a theater teacher at Fenton High School, located about 40 miles northwest of Lansing. She had worked on a play called “Ticking,” about school violence. The Eplings spent time with Thompson, shared the book with her and spoke with the actors.


Thompson told them she wanted to make the book into a performance piece. They contacted the other parents, worked with the actors, and set up interviews between the families and the performers who would portray their lost children.


The Eplings and their daughter, Kristen, visited with the cast and talked with the young man playing Matt. They gave him photos, videos, copies of Matt’s poetry, anything that would guide the actor to embodying the Matt they knew.


"It portrays Matt as who he was," Tammy Epling said. "People will be able to see who Matt was, who all these children were. They were not just statistics. They were loved. They were sons, they were daughters, they were friends. They all had a future, all had potential.”


She had a dream of seeing her son on stage; Matt had become involved in theater just before his death. To see Matt represented on stage was a “shock” at first, she said, but there is something powerful about bringing the kids they lost back to life, even for 75 minutes.


“It’s our kids’ words,” Kevin Epling said. “They haven’t been silenced. That’s what bullying tends to do, is silence the victims. These victims won’t be silenced.”


Four of the 10 individuals portrayed in the performance are from Michigan. They represent a diverse group of students of different ages, genders and races from all socioeconomic classes. Thompson and the students spent time speaking with each of the families whose children are included, even visiting the location where one of the students had shot himself, a place his parents called “sacred.”


“It’s definitely tough subject matter, but the real-life incidences that go on are even tougher,” Thompson said. “In the end it’s a theatrical piece and the actors can walk away from it, but the stories they are telling are real, and unfortunately the individuals they are portraying really went through this.”


After each performance, Thompson and the students participate in a talk back with the audience. She said it’s a good way for people of all ages to share their stories and their feelings on bullying.


At one school, the principal told the audience about an experience in his childhood, in which he was a bystander to bullying that eventually pushed the victim to kill himself. He told his students that every day he wonders if he had said or done something, if that student would still be alive.


The performance opens up those connections between adults and educators and students who see bullying first-hand.


Kevin Epling said he focuses on education, engagement and empowerment: Educate people about bullying, engage the community in anti-bullying awareness, and empower students to do something about it.


“Even though it’s a very emotional production, hopefully people walk away with the sense that they need to do something,” Epling said. “It’s kind of tough to sit and watch and go through, and there won’t be a dry eye in the house. But it really energizes everybody else to go out and do something different.”


’The Bullycide Project’


Wharton Center 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 30 $17; available at www.whartoncenter.com All proceeds to fund anti-bullying education in Michigan. (800) WHARTON


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