No One Eats Alone: school bullying, social isolation combated in Bibb County

They called her ‘upside down glasses.’ Now she owns it

Melissa Adkins, of Peach State Health Plan, said teaching students in Macon, GA, about how to combat bullying and social isolation is personal to her. It was National No One Eats Alone Day on Feb. 15, 2019.
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Melissa Adkins, of Peach State Health Plan, said teaching students in Macon, GA, about how to combat bullying and social isolation is personal to her. It was National No One Eats Alone Day on Feb. 15, 2019.

Melissa Adkins remembered the belittling name her classmates called her at the Macon elementary schools she attended.

“People called me ‘upside down glasses’ because my glasses literally looked like they were upside down,” Adkins said.

The insult stung. She was humiliated.

“When you talk about social isolation, I was definitely that kid,” she said.

Now, decades later, recalling how much the ill-intended monicker upset her at that age, she laughs instead of crying.

“They kind of did look like upside down glasses,” Adkins said, adding that in hindsight she felt it set her apart from her peers. “That’s when you take the power back. That’s what I call growth. I didn’t have the tools (that) we’re trying to give you now.”

Adkins works as a community relations coordinator for Peach State Health Plan. She shared her story with dozens of middle school students on a recent afternoon at St. Peter Claver Catholic School. The occasion was National No One Eats Alone Day, an initiative created by the nonprofit Beyond Differences.

Peach State Health Care Plan partners with the nonprofit every year to spread the word about social inclusion in schools across Georgia.

“We want them to understand (bullying) is social. It’s physical. It’s emotional,” Adkins said. “So we try to talk to them. Just a conversation. We don’t want to make it so heavy that they don’t understand what we’re telling them.”

Beyond Differences was established in honor of Lili Rachel Smith, who had Apert syndrome, a genetic disorder in which the skull bones fuse too early, affecting the shape of the head and face. Smith suffered from social isolation because of her appearance. She died unexpectedly at age 15 from medical complications, according to the Beyond Differences website.

Bullying is an issue faced in public and private schools, though private schools are not required to report data about bullying to the state.

Two percent of middle and high school students across Georgia are bullied or threatened each school day. About 4 percent of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders reported their classmates picked on them every day, according to the state’s 2016-17 Student Health Survey 2.0.

In Bibb County, there were at least 232 incidents of bullying-related discipline incidents last school year, according to information collected by the Georgia Department of Education.

Weaver, Howard and Rutland middle schools each reported more than 20 incidents, the most of any other Bibb school. Punishment for a bully can range from in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, detention, parent conferences, loss of privileges or assignment to the district’s alternative school.

Bibb schools are working to combat bullying with a number of efforts, including the creation of a bullying hotline at 478-779-3711 and an online platform called “Let’s Talk!” where issues can be reported.

Some Bibb schools also have “bullying boxes” for confidential notes. Howard Middle students can scan a “QR code” — a bar code that’s readable by smartphones — with their cellphone to request to speak with a counselor.

The school system also hosts an annual anti-bullying symposium in October “to give parents and the community an opportunity to hear what we are doing and solicit their ideas/recommendations,” Beverly Stewart, director of student support services for the district, said.

Another way Bibb schools works to combat bullying is through Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) approach, which focuses on positive incentives. PBIS “teaches students appropriate behavior,” Stephanie Hartley, spokeswoman for Bibb schools, said in an email to The Telegraph.

An initiative, called “The Leader in Me,” combats bullying and promotes character building. It has been implemented in 21 Bibb schools and it is based on Stephen Covey’s 1989 self-improvement book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.

Laura Corley covers education news for The Telegraph, where she advocates for government transparency and writes about issues affecting today’s youth. She grew up in Middle Georgia and graduated from Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.