Stories on students across the country being bullied at school have filled the headlines of newspapers, magazines and TV news stations recently, namely after the story broke about 16-year-old Whitney Kropp of Michigan who mentioned suicide after being embarrassed by classmates who jokingly nominated her for the school’s homecoming court.
Locally, the issue was brought up last week after Lincolnton High freshman Zharia Link’s family thought she may have been a victim of harassment and foul play.
However, what may have started out as a prank to elect Link for a 9th grade homecoming representative turned into something much more —something positive according to school officials.
Link, 15, was elected by her peers and, though she wasn’t opposed to having her name as a choice on the ballot, she was hesitant about going through with participating after hearing the rumor about why she was chosen to represent her class.
Homecoming coordinator at LHS Heidi Anthony approached Link after she failed to attend the information session for those participating on the court.
“She didn’t know if she wanted to do it at first, “ Anthony told the Times-News on Tuesday, “but she decided she wanted to; if anything it has had a positive outcome for her.”
After deciding she wanted to be involved, Link asked whether there was a way she could have help with some of the accommodations, which Anthony was happy to hear.
Faculty, students and their parents teamed up to support Link and help pitch in for her to have a car to ride in, a dress and other homecoming essentials the other participants had — “a team effort.”
After hearing that Link may have been bullied, LHS Principal Tony Worley and Anthony sat down with Link and asked her how she felt about the situation. Worley remembers Link saying she didn’t feel bullied and was turning what may have started out as a negative situation into a positive one.
Unfortunately this sort of thing does happen at schools, where children will nominate each other for things as a joke, Anthony said, but Link decided she was going to respond to it differently and see the bright side. She had her hair done, wore a dress she chose and seemed to enjoy the festivities.
At the pep rally held on homecoming day, Link received a standing ovation from everyone in the gymnasium — about 900, schools Superintendent Sherry Hoyle estimates. The same reaction appeared later that night at the game.
“I think the way they supported her was really a testament of the student body,” Hoyle said.
Of the 13 years Anthony has been teaching, she said Link’s homecoming moments will remain (easily) in her top five; she really made a statement, Anthony noted.
Anthony, Hoyle and Worley were all prepared to take the necessary measures, had Link felt she had been bullied.
In 2009, N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue signed the School Violence Prevention Act, otherwise known as the Anti-Bullying Bill, requiring K-12 schools to create and enforce policies to battle bullying and other types of harassment that jeopardize the learning environment for students. Every school in Lincoln County has a code of conduct booklet that is distributed to students at the beginning of each school year, spelling out what is not allowed and the consequences of those actions.
Students involved in harassing, bullying or in any way disrupting another student can face penalties of 10 days or more of suspension, and could be out for an entire year depending on the severity and conditions surrounding the situation.
Bullying is taken seriously at LHS and the county, Hoyle promised, and has had recent conversations with Worley to re-evaluate the homecoming nomination process.
“Our student body will not tolerate bullying or harassment,” Worley said. “The entire student body made a clear statement at the homecoming pep rally.”
In honor of October being National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, LHS’ Project Unify club will celebrate Unity Day Oct. 10. Students will wear orange and the rock in front of the high school will be painted orange to match with a message about bullying.
Link’s mother opted for her daughter not to be interviewed.