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  • Writer's pictureIrene North

Bullies and Targets

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

Fast facts

28% of U.S. students in grades 6–12 experienced bullying.

Approximately 30% of young people admit to bullying others in surveys.

70.6% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools.

70.4% of school staff have seen bullying. 62% witnessed bullying two or more times in the last month and 41% witness bullying once a week or more.

When bystanders intervene, bullying stops within 10 seconds 57% of the time.

Only about 20 to 30% of students who are bullied notify adults about the bullying.

When students walk into Ancova Empowerment Project, their backgrounds no longer matter.

They may have been targeted at school or been a bully, but at AEP they are turning their lives around and creating positive experiences for themselves.

AEP students are youth who are at risk in some way. In the AEP studio, they are learning about music, film, and the arts, and are using their talents to go on and have productive lives.

Founder Dave Calkins sees the potential in each student who walks through the door and he refuses to give up on any one of them.

AEP nurtures their artistic ideas and lights their spark of passion in the arts. While students are at AEP, they are also learning vital life skills, such as how to interact as a team and planning out projects. When they graduate from AEP, they are armed with the interpersonal skills necessary to make careers and lives for themselves.

Dave Calkins sees a need for these types of organizations as there are not enough such projects that are focused solely on helping children.

One of the first projects at AEP was “Bullies and Targets,” which explores the causes and feelings of both sides of bullying. AEP students created the film, each playing bully and target.

Dave Calkins said he's not trying to teach people or be experts on bullying. The purpose of the film was for the students to explore the topic itself.

“We were not trying to come to conclusions,” Dave Calkins said. “We have the kids examine it themselves and share that process with other people.”

As they worked through the project, the students found one role was easier to perform.

“The kids said being a bully is easier,” said Carol Calkins. “It's easier to be aggressive than to be vulnerable.”

Carol Calkins, who has worked as a school social worker for the past 16 years, played the off-camera role of the counselor. She enjoyed watching the process of making the film and seeing the students work through issues instead of being told what they were going to do. “The result is an authentic piece rather than something that is what the adults think,” she said.

Tim Ostdiek taught the students basic editing techniques and how to put together a storyboard. Ostdiek enjoyed watching the youth react to their own performances for the first time. “It was fun for them to see themselves in each side, as a bully and a target,” Ostdiek said. “It made them a little more empathetic when they saw themselves playing a target even though it was just acting.”

In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Education defined bullying as unwanted aggressive behavior; observed or perceived power imbalance; and repetition of behaviors or high likelihood of repetition. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose, said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

While anyone can be bullied, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) youth are at increased risk. Several students in “Bullies and Targets” were directly affected by the recent suicide of their transgender classmate, who had been the target of bullying.

Many students report not feeling safe at school, are lonely, and don't think they can talk to any adult at school. When they are targeted, they miss classes and fall behind. When they do return, they no longer understand the material.

“Bullies and Targets” brings those issues to light, which continue to occur in schools across the nation despite attempts to teach bullying is wrong and how to deal with it.

AEP students were given large roles, such as set designer and costume designer, as part of their work on the film. They were more than actors. They were part of the production.

“The most important thing for the project and AEP is to empower the students who maybe haven't had a lot of great experiences with adults,” Carol Calkins said.

Each student wrote their own dialogue. Dave Calkins was impressed with the final result. He and AEP staff only guided with their technical expertise.

About three weeks before the live performance, a peer of the students completed suicide. The AEP faculty were worried how the show would go.

“It was stressful to ask these kids to put on a performance when this suicide was partially caused by bullying,” Dave Calkins said. “I was impressed these kids soldiered on.”

The students said they wanted to do the show.

“It was painful to them, but was relevant,” Dave Calkins said. “I learned once again that young people are resilient.”

That is why Dave Calkins started AEP. He wanted to give young people hope they can get through the experiences they have had, such as major trauma and loss.

Joey Taylor, director of the live theater version of “Bullies and Targets,” said it was important to have students involved in the project because it gets them talking about the issue of bullying and starts a dialogue to get parents discussing it as well.

“When kids talk about it, parents talk and everyone is actively talking about it,” Taylor said. "That's how change is made.”

When people actively pay attention and do not allow bullying to continue, change occurs. Ostdiek said the film could have a huge impact on anyone who sees it because the film is plain and simple to understand.

“I remember being so struck in how clearly it shows what someone is going through when they are bullied,” Ostdiek said. “Hopefully it gets people to empathize and lead kids to stop bullying.”

The bigger impact from such a film is the students making it are involved in every aspect and it empowers them just be being a part of the film, Ostdiek said.

During the theater version, Taylor allowed the students to take charge, letting them dictate how things should go.

“A lot of it I think was them feeding from their own experiences,” Taylor said. “So that helped it a lot."

According to Teaching Tolerance, the targets of bullies are often from a group marginalized because of a certain characteristic – such as race, immigration status, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, gender expression/identity or size – about which others hold prejudiced assumptions.

While schools have policies in place, they aren't always enforced consistently. According to the Nebraska Department of Education, the most effective anti-bullying plan is designed and implemented with specific knowledge and skills consistently trained and used throughout the school district. Everyone in the district – students, staff, teachers, parents – need to be committed to eliminating bullying or no plan will ever be effective.

“Kids need to to stop bullying, but there needs to be more response from school administrators," Dave Calkins said. “They are doing the best they can, but there needs to be more dialogue.”

AEP takes a multi-tiered approach of looking at issues such as bullying by engaging different parts of the brain from an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual perspective. While AEP wasn't designed to tackle bullying alone, it is a topic that comes up often with his students. Many of them come into the program feeling isolated.

“What happens at the end of these sessions is they have a group of friends they can hang out together and call each other,” Dave Calkins said. “The kids need to be social.”

Dave Calkins said there has been some backlash from people who believe if youth stop bullying each other, school shootings will cease. That view is too simplistic, he said.

“A lot of bullying culture is nurtured and made worse by the culture we live in,” he said. “There needs to be a much more pointed response from the left but particularly from the right.”

Bullying tactics toward women, people of color, anyone perceived as slightly different, etc., is a problem in American culture.

“Bullying is universal and is unfortunately encouraged by the divisiveness in our world now,” he said. “ We live in a bullying culture which makes it even harder to be young.”

“Bullies and Targets” has broken down some barriers, but more work needs to be done. Adults need to be better role models and a broader conversation about bullying must take place if there is any hope to alleviate the suffering of children who are perceived to be different in any way. “I can't imagine anyone wouldn't watch that film and be touched,” Carol Calkins said.

As AEP prepares for its next 16-week project, the new class of students will have their choice of ways to look at the issues affecting them today. For more information or to get involved visit

Author Bio: Irene North has won numerous awards for her work with various publications and is now a freelance writer.

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Jan 25, 2023

It was amazing to work with these creative kids and faculty!

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