Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bullied girl alone no more

Bullied girl alone no more

She finds comfort in letters from hundreds of strangers, a campaign begun by Mill Valley sisters

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sitting in her living room amid stacks of handwritten letters from all over the nation and the world, 14-year-old Olivia Gardner of Novato said she no longer feels alone.

A victim of extreme bullying that spanned two years and three schools, Olivia said she has been pulled from the depths of depression by a letter-writing campaign started by two sisters at Tamalpais High in Marin County after they read in The Chronicle in March about Olivia's ordeal.

At least 1,000 strangers have sent her letters and e-mails of support, and there's talk of a book deal, Web sites and letter campaigns for other children who are bullied, and the three girls have received countless interview requests.

Whether Olivia likes it or not, she helped bring attention to the widespread and tenacious problem of bullying in school hallways, on cell phones and in cyberspace.

"I like all the support, but I don't like all the attention and that people recognize me as a victim," said Olivia, who dyed her brown hair darker and streaked it with blond as a sort of disguise.

Olivia has rarely left home during the past year, and her mother is homeschooling her. Still, her mother, Kathleen Gardner, said Olivia has made amazing progress in the last few weeks and is accepting some requests to speak to students. On Tuesday, she and the two sisters talked with fifth-grade girls in San Rafael at a program called Midway Cafe, which prepares them for the social rigors of middle school and the effects of bullying. She also is getting excited about starting high school next year -- outside Novato.

Sisters Emily, 17, and Sarah Buder, 14, of Mill Valley are stunned by the response to their effort to ask fellow high school students write to Olivia so she would feel better and know she is not alone in being bullied.

"I felt what was happening to her was so horrible, and she didn't deserve to be treated this way, even though I had never met her," Sarah said.

As word spread through the media and internet, letters flooded in from far beyond the Bay Area.

"I was expecting an immediate response just from the community around me," Emily said. "But then it was so incredible to see letters from Oregon, Australia and all these places."

Children sent drawings of hearts or stick figures of themselves holding hands with Olivia. They also wrote:

"Dear Olivia, I think you are very brave ..."

"Dear Olivia, Don't let the bullies get inside your head ..."

"Dear Olivia, It goes to show that for every bully that puts us down, there are a hundred loving people to pick us up ..."

Adults wrote of their own past pain:

"Dear Olivia, I'm 60 years old and have lived in Marin County my whole life. When I was in the 5th grade I arrived at school and found a note in my desk signed by every girl in my class, except for my 2 closest friends, saying the most horrible things about me. ... Olivia, I hope it helps to know that others are thinking about you and have been through what you went through. Stay strong."

Rochelle Sides of Texas wrote of her daughter, Corinne Wilson, who fatally shot herself in the forehead one day after school when she was 13. It was the culmination of nearly a year of bullying by two girls who once were her best friends, Sides said in an interview.

"Every day they told her she was ugly and fat and couldn't sing and her hair was frizzy," said Sides, now active in anti-bully campaigns such as Bully Police U.S.A. Then, Sides said, the girls started telling Corinne she should just die. Corinne wrote about her problems in her English class journal but never spoke about them with her parents. Corinne must have felt terribly alone, her mother said.

"In talking to victims and reading surveys, the overriding theme is they feel alone," Sides said. "We as adults can say you are beautiful, the bullies are wrong. But it really doesn't hold a lot of weight in this peer group. So a lot of positive feedback from their peers could be just the thing to save their lives."

Patti Agatston, an author and counselor who specializes in bully prevention for the Cobb County School District in Atlanta, also wrote a letter to Olivia and hopes to launch an "Olivia's Letters" link on her Web site, www.cyberbullyhelp.com. The idea is to gather the names of bully victims who could use some support and launch students on letter-writing campaigns.

"We've been talking about how important it is for students and bystanders to do something positive to help victims of bullying. Olivia's letters are a great example," Agatston said.

The Buders and Olivia also are talking about finding someone to publish a book mixing excerpts from the letters with advice from teachers, parents and bully experts.

Nationwide, more than 4 in 10 teens have been victims of taunts and threats via social network Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook, instant messages and text messages from cell phones, according to a survey by the National Crime Prevention Council. One in 8 reported feeling scared enough to stay home from school, according to the survey. In the Bay Area, teens in Danville and San Francisco, as well as Novato, have been involved in publicized cases.

In Olivia's case, even persistent attention to the problem by her mother didn't resolve it. Her bullying started in sixth grade when Olivia, who has epilepsy, had a seizure and classmates called her "retard" and dragged her backpack through mud. Then came an "Olivia Haters" Web page. After she switched schools, kids there heard about how her old classmates had treated her and started in again, Kathleen Gardner said.

She was happy for about a year at a third middle school, but then the mother and daughter were called on to help a classmate who said her parents abused her. During the Child Protective Services investigation, word got out that the Gardners were involved, and tables turned on them. The girl allegedly changed her story and told classmates that Olivia had tried to break up her family. Rumors spread again, and Olivia was bombarded with calls and e-mails. Students started wearing plastic bracelets declaring their hatred for Olivia, Kathleen Gardner said.

Officials at Olivia's past schools have declined to comment on the Gardners' story.

"Olivia was really isolated," Gardner said. "She spiraled down further and further until I felt I lost my daughter."

Olivia's scars aren't physical. But she rarely looks up while she speaks, preferring to fiddle with her hands or a silver heart necklace sent recently by an anonymous supporter. From behind a curtain of her hair, she answers questions about her interests -- guitar, keyboards, karate and drama. She wants to be an actress when she grows up.

The letters help her believe she might reach her goals some day.

"It makes me feel I have support," she said. "I just wish it was from someone I knew."


The story so far

Olivia switched schools twice before her mother resorted to homeschooling her to stop other kids from bullying her in person and online, her mother said. It all started when Olivia, who is epileptic, had a seizure one day in sixth grade, and several classmates called her "retard" and dragged her backpack through mud. It escalated online with a page on MySpace, continued at her second school, and resumed at the third when mother and daughter helped state investigators look into child abuse allegations in a family they knew, Kathleen Gardner said.

-- You can mail encouraging letters to

Olivia's Letters, c/o Janet Buder,

775 East Blithedale Ave. #106, Mill Valley, CA 94941 or e-mail janetbuder@aol.com.

E-mail Ilene Lelchuk at ilelchuk@sfchronicle.com.

http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/05/23/MNGTFPVVON1.DTL

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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