What does a parent do when her child is brutally murdered? For Erin Runnion, mother of Samantha Runnion, whose life was cut short in the summer of 2002, the answer was to be dedicated to ensuring that Samantha’s tragic death continues to be a catalyst to engage others in our collective responsibility in protecting our nation’s children.
Runnion, who spoke at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) summer appeals brunch entitled “ADL Helps Families by Confronting Bullying: Personal Stories from the Frontline,” is the founding director of the Joyful Child Foundation – in Memory of Samantha Runnion. She was motivated to found the organization, because “the more I learned about crimes against children, the more stunned I was that there was no organization to deal with it.”
Relating that the man who murdered Samantha had been bullied by his father, Runnion said that trauma changes the way brains develop. When people who are traumatized feel threatened, they “see red,” and thus, violence begets violence.
“We need to look at violence through a child’s eyes,” Runnion said. “When they endure violence, they could eventually commit suicide or conduct a massacre.”
Adding that the “zero tolerance policy” sends mixed messages, Runnion said that 165,000 children stay home from school daily, because they are afraid of violence. In 4 percent of bullying cases, the teacher intervenes; in 11 percent, a student intervenes. However, 85 percent of the time, a child is alone when he or she faces bullies. The child who might act in self-defense is afraid that he or she will be labeled the perpetrator.
Runnion — whose honors include the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s 2003 Hope Award, a certificate of valor from the Department of Justice, People Magazine’s 2004 Heroes Among Us Award and Redbook Magazine’s 2005 Mothers and Shakers honor – wants to “empower kids to stop the violence. There are three principles: no one has the right to hurt me, because I am special; you don’t have the right to hurt anyone else, including yourself, unless someone is trying to hurt you; if anyone tries to hurt you or trick you, it is not your fault. Kids need self-value and self-worth.”
“There is a triangle of victim-perpetrator-opportunity,” Runnion explained. “Our role is to eliminate the victim and perpetrator. If the whole school is trained, we can eliminate the opportunity.”
She added, “ADL has been on the forefront of preventing bullying for so many years, but it takes a big story to make people aware of it. We have to protect all of our children, to overcome fear and hate and to stop the violence. Then we can build a safer, saner world one child at a time. We don’t want to scare children; we just want them to be brave.”
Jordon Steinberg, an attorney specializing in family law at the firm of Minyard Morris in Newport Beach, talked about how the Orange County Bar Association is collaborating with ADL to get into every school in Orange County to present anti-bullying resources to teachers, parents and school administrators. “There is a social anathema facing our children,” he said. “Inaction breeds complacency.”
The goal, according to Steinberg, is to teach people how to ask the right questions. “More than 30 percent of the students’ time is spent with teachers, but 71 percent of the students complain that teachers don’t care.”
Another speaker at the event, Julian Wyatt, related his story of harassment that brought him to ADL for assistance and eventual relocation. Wyatt, a Jewish African American, is a retired naval officer and combat veteran with 30 years of military experience. He served in Iraq, where he led Friday night services for his unit, as well as for one of the few remaining Jews in the area who risked her life to get there.
In 2009 Wyatt’s son was harassed at school in Huntington Beach. The boy was called names and had rocks thrown at him. Then there were anti-Semitic slurs at Wyatt’s wife. Finally, Wyatt was attacked with a hammer and his son was threatened at school. His rabbi suggested that he call Kevin O’Grady, Ed.D., regional director of the Orange County/Long Beach chapter of the Anti-Defamation League. ADL put Wyatt’s family in touch with the victim’s assistance program, paid for the family’s relocation to Arizona and even paid the first month’s rent.
“When people are in crisis, we pull resources together for anybody who calls us,” O’Grady said. “ADL’s missions are to defend the Jewish people and to provide justice for all people. The roots of bigotry all grow in the same ground. ADL cares about bullying, because we, as a people, realize that if you don’t stop bullying at its roots, it can be extremely dangerous.”
According to O’Grady, ADL wants to make sure to make sure the schools know the organization is in partnership with them. As an ally, ADL provides programs for teachers and students to deal with bullies and programs to help bullies to change their behavior.
“Cyber bullying tends to be much crueler and tends to involve more people,” O’Grady added. “Spaces that used to be safe can be reached by cyber bullying, so we talk to kids and parents. When parents are afraid that their children are being bullied, they should call ADL. We need to continue our work, to respond to these pleas.”
The Orange County/Long Beach office of ADL, which covers a population of 4 million ethnically and racially diverse people, also investigates left-wing and right-wing activism and fights against the delegitimization of Israel. Its programs include an annual Jewish-Latino Seder; A World of Difference education programs to help prepare students and teachers to participate in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic world; an annual civil rights debate series in partnership with Chapman University School of Law; No Place for Hate, an anti-bigotry program to combat hate on campus; and the Glass Leadership Institute, to introduce young adult leaders to the work of ADL.
For more information, contact ADL at (714) 953-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.