Because she’s been bullied and because she works with kids who’ve been bullied, Southwest High School senior and anti-bullying activist Laresa Avent recognizes better than most that her generation’s experience with bullying is drastically different from those past.
Once upon a time, bullies relegated their activities to private beatings and verbal harassments. The modern-day bully has at his and her disposal a fully equipped newsroom capable of spreading gossip, hate, lies, and general malaise across the globe in the blink of a button.
It’s a new world, full of confusing and exciting ways to communicate, but luckily there are compassionate thought leaders such as Avent, the oldest of four girls who was raised by a single mom and who doesn’t want her younger sisters to be treated the way she has been — and if they are, she wants them to have resources, information, and the knowledge that somebody has their back.
“When I was younger I lived with my mom, and we weren’t doing great financially so we moved around a lot,” said Avent. “So I was always that weird kid. I had gapped teeth, my hair was really nappy, I was always the oddball kid. Nobody wanted to play with me because I was constantly the new kid at school and it would take me a longer time to make friends, if I ever made friends.
“I would get bullied, and I would get teased, and I never cried about it. I always stood up for myself. I used to get in a lot of fist fights when I was little. I would either get ganged up on by kids or completely ignored.”
That strength and experience led her to start an anti-bulling group at Southwest and to attend, along with 450 other high school students from around the state, the Youth Summit at Metropolitan State University on March 3. The summit convened in the afternoon and traveled to the state Capitol where students lobbied representatives to vote for the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act, which was passed in 2009 but vetoed by then Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
“Minnesota has some of the weakest anti-bullying laws on the books, but we can change that — even though it feels like this is going to be harder [to pass] than gay marriage,” said state Sen. Scott Dibble in addressing the Youth Summit, which was attended by many LGBT students who have first-hand experience with bullying.
But the likes of the Star Tribune’s Katherine Kersten and the hilariously nefarious Minnesota Family Council have met their match with the likes of Avent, who also founded a spoken word/poetry slam group at Southwest, and delivered a stirring keynote address at the Youth Summit. Vilified by the conservative right as gay propaganda, the bill seeks comprehensive anti-bullying legislation, and is being spearheaded by the Minnesota Safe Schools for All Coalition, a group of 130 education, disability, youth, religious, and LGBT and social service organizations (including OutFront Minnesota, who — full disclosure — employs this writer’s wife).
“In learning about this bill, I’ve learned how it would change students’ lives,” said Avent. “I have a sister in elementary school, one in middle school, and one in high school, and they’ve all struggled with being bullied and not feeling safe in their schools. So it’s very important for me to be here for people who don’t feel like they have a voice.
“When I was little, kids would pick at my race a lot. I had serious issues with being a multiracial kid. A lot of multiracial kids feel like they have to fit in with one specific race, and nobody told me that I didn’t have to when I was little. I was constantly stuck in between ‘Am I white or am I black?’ And the white kids, quote unquote, I felt like I couldn’t relate to them because a lot of those kids lived in really nice houses and who’ve never really gone through the issues that I’ve gone through.
“And then with the black kids, they thought I was too light skinned, and the white kids didn’t want to hang out with me because they thought I was too ghetto. It was a serious issue, and a lot of kids were really mean to me, and it really affected me. I didn’t know where to fit in, it was really hard.”
When she was a sophomore, Avent volunteered on the teen council at Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn Park, where her mother Jessica Roy works as clinic manager. That experience led directly to Avent getting more involved at Southwest as a budding activist.
“I’m really proud of her,” said Roy. “I think she always has been a very empathetic person, and it was so good to see her take it out into the community. She’s very inclusive, she’s always been friendly, and she was always the one to reach out to kids who might not feel comfortable.”
“I’ve always been really outgoing and I’ll talk to kids, but they would just stare at me,” said Avent. “And it doesn’t sound that bad, but if you’ve ever been trying to talk to someone and they just stare at you without saying a word… You start getting uncomfortable and you don’t know what to do. They would just stare at me, or call me ‘white chick,’ or ‘ghetto,’ all this ridiculous stuff. Now I would laugh if someone said that to me, but when I was little it really hurt my feelings.”
Southwest has routinely been named one of the best public high schools in the state, but it has a reputation for cliques and rigidly adhered-to social hierarchies. Avent recognized as much upon arrival, and soon after went to work at breaking down barriers between groups.
“Our biggest thing is to make sure all students feel safe,” she said. “Not all students know how to handle bullying, and not all faculty know how to handle bullying. The faculty can’t always be a good support for someone who’s being bullied, so if you can find someone in the student body you can go to… To feel like you go to a school where the students truly truly care for each other is very different than going to a school where the teachers care for you.
“I feel like every school should have a student body that’s as supportive as Southwest is now. It hasn’t always been like that, and there are obviously kids who aren’t bothered with it, and you can’t force kids to care about other people. But for the kids who do care about people, they want to help each other and it’s a great experience to see kids really genuinely caring about another person. There’s like 1,800 kids at our school, and for you to know only 15 or 20 kids, you’re limiting yourself.”
As the Safe and Supportive Schools For All bill makes its way through the Minnesota Senate, Avent said she’ll monitor it closely, and do everything in her power to ensure its passage.
“A lot of the upperclassmen were skeptical: ‘There’s no bullying at Southwest; it doesn’t happen,’ but it does,” said Avent, who will study underprivileged youth, communications, and the performing arts at either the College of St. Catherine or Columbia in the fall. “If you see on our social networks, the students are bullied all the time, but they don’t name it as ‘bullying.’ People taking a text between two people and putting it up and talking about it, or slut-shaming pages. It’s not so much, ‘I’m a bully and I’m going to steal your lunch money,’ it’s ‘I’m going to put this up and there’s nothing you can do about it.’
“It’s a problem at all sorts of schools, all over the US. A lot of freshmen have come up to me and said, ‘I’ve never been in a school where I feel safe, where if something like that happened I’d have someone to come to, that I’d have people to stick up for me.’ It’s wonderful because they come up to us and hug us and thank us.”