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Clarkson hosts anti-bullying speaker as part of Martin Luther King memorial

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POTSDAM — A Pennsylvania professor brought his anti-bullying message, with a Hollywood spin, to Clarkson University.

Standing in the university’s Student Forum, Brian C. Johnson gave some humor to a very serious issue Monday during his presentation, “Reel Big Bullies,” as part of the university’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day memorial events.

Anti-bullying messages like Mr. Johnson’s have gained national attention in recent months, especially in New York, after two high school teens, Jamey Rodemeyer, 14, of Buffalo and Amanda Cummings, 15, of Staten Island, were pushed to suicide by their classmates’ torment and ridicule.

But bullying doesn’t end when people walk onto a college campus, Mr. Johnson told the small crowd sitting on the wooden steps in the dimly lit Student Center.

Fifty percent of all college students have said they were the targets of bullies, while nearly one-third of all college students have admitted to witnessing a bully in action and have done nothing to stop the problem, the Bloomberg University professor said.

“We like to think it’s an elementary school issue or middle school or high school issue, but the reality is in our world today bullying takes place at all ages,” he said.

And Hollywood isn’t helping. With bully clips from a number of popular films like “The Karate Kid” and “Mean Girls” playing in the background, Mr. Johnson talked about the ways movies have made bullies’ attacks seem like an acceptable part of childhood.

“Film has normalized bullying for us. It has created this belief that it is expected, that bullying is normal and we’re better because we’re bullied,” said Mr. Johnson, who also is director of the Frederick Douglass Institute for Academic Excellence.

Instead of looking at bullying as a natural selection process or a way to prepare teens for the harshness of the real world, people have to recognize it for what it is — a dangerous and ugly power struggle, he said.

Bullying in schools means that learning occurs in a culture of fear and intimidation, he said, and no longer can it be shrugged off as harmless teasing among children.

“The reality is people are getting hurt physically, mentally, emotionally,” he said. “And people are dying — literally.”

Several state legislators, with Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein, D-Bronx, leading the charge, have taken notice of online bullying and are working toward updating state harassment laws and cracking down on what they have called “the emerging cyberbullying epidemic.”

If passed, the legislation would update the crime of third-degree stalking (a Class A misdemeanor) to include cyberbullying. It would also expand the charge of second-degree manslaughter (a Class C felony) to include “bullycide” — when a person engages in cyberbullying and intentionally causes the victim to commit suicide.

But it isn’t just Albany that needs to make a change, according to Mr. Johnson.

Our society has adopted a “schadenfreude attitude,” he said, taking pleasure from seeing others suffer. It happens when a crowd erupts into laughter after someone falls down a flight of stairs or when a person is heckled after dropping a lunch tray.

Bullying will end when people change that mindset, he said.

“If we can create a community of care, communities that care about other people, I can almost guarantee we can undo a lot of what has happened,” Mr. Johnson said.

And talking about the social problem on a day dedicated to the civil rights leader was only fitting, he said.

“If we understand any one thing that Dr. King lived and worked for, and also sacrificed for, was a belief in empowering the masses to take care of one another,” Mr. Johnson said.

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