“When I was younger,” Fran-Marie Hlatky-Rivera said, “I used to get beat up a lot.” As she and her classmates grew and changed, so did the torment they put her through. For a time, she said, they would push her around in the hallway between classes. “Then there was a time that they would go into my bag and steal stuff from me.”
Now, two years before they leave high school behind, Fran-Marie’s classmates have taken to recording videos of her and posting them on the internet. The videos, she said, are unspectacular, and show her going about her day, sitting in class or walking in the hall.
“I’ll hear someone laughing,” the Glen Cove High School junior said. When she looks around to see what’s so funny, she finds herself staring at a smartphone camera.
Some people are in on the joke, but Fran-Marie is not. “I’ve tried to understand,” she said, “and I keep coming up with dead-ends.”
Around four years ago, her mother, Maria Rivera-Hlatky, teamed up with other parents from around the school district to address the bullying that their children faced in school. The parents got together to ask then-Mayor Reginald Spinello to help them raise awareness. That was how the annual Glen Cove BullyProof Project Awareness Walk came to be.
The walk, now in its fourth year, will be held at Morgan Park on Sunday at 10 a.m. Speakers will include event organizer Carmelita DiGraci, Sgt. Ryan Nardone of the Glen Cove Police Department, Heather Lehman, author of “Bullied at the Dog Park,” and Alexa Valentino, a 13-year-old singer-songwriter from Northport whose music has anti-bullying themes.
DiGraci said that even though a lot of bullying plays out at school, it doesn’t start there. “[Home is] where the learning starts,” she said. “They see it at home, or on TV, and they bring it into the schools.”
But not always, she added. When her son was in seventh grade, he was being bullied through the online video games he was playing with his classmates. Many games allow players to speak to one another through their headphones while they play. DiGraci said that the dialogue sometimes got out of hand. “It goes from a joke to ‘I want to fight you at school,’” she said, “or getting a group of kids to turn against you.”
Parents struggle with teaching their children how to handle a bully without designating themselves, rather than the bully, as the party responsible for ending the situation. “You shouldn’t have to,” DiGraci said, “but as a parent, you want to make them aware of the [social] environment.”
Before her son’s freshman year, DiGraci transferred him to a Catholic school. “He needed that time apart from everybody,” she said. A year later, he told her, “I’ve changed. They’ve changed. I’m ready to go back.”
It’s important, she said, to understand what drives bullies to act the way they do. “As much as you want to hate the child, you can’t,” DiGraci said. “You don’t know what’s going on in their lives. You’ve got to give them that space to change.”
She added that, years later, her son actually had become close friends with one of the children who used to bully him. “You may not be friends with them today,” she said, “but years down the line, you might be best friends.”
Maria Rivera-Hlatky, Fran-Marie’s mother, used to volunteer at the Child Abuse Prevention Center in Roslyn, giving workshops at schools around Long Island. She said that social media were partly to blame for the callousness of today’s young people, which makes it easier for them to be cruel to one another. With more and more interactions happening not face to face, but face to screen, “They get desensitized,” Rivera-Hlatky said. “They don’t realize what they’re typing is going to hurt whoever is on the receiving end.”
Fran-Marie said that some days are worse than others. But as hard as it is, after enduring bullies since elementary school, she’s learned to deal with it. “Getting used to it occurring,” she said, “you just kind of block it out after a while.”