Renee Scherzer’s daughter, a star student athlete, was in fourth grade when she became a victim of girls who were aggressive and relentless bullies. It was so bad, Scherzer says, she and her daughter would drive to school each day “praying that the girls would be nice.” Finally, Scherzer had enough. After appealing to teachers, administrators, and the parents of the bullies, to no avail, she decided to pull her daughter out of the affluent Scottsdale school (a school they had moved to be close to) and enroll her somewhere else.
“This is really a school safety issue; bullying is a school safety issue. If a child doesn’t feel safe, they aren’t going to learn. And so we need to make sure that we create a safe learning environment for kids,” says Nicole Stanton, the First Lady of Phoenix.
Wife of Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, she has long been an anti-bullying advocate. Stanton’s brother, Dion, was the victim of vicious bullying at a young age, due to the fact that he exhibited qualities deemed more feminine than the other boys.
Stanton’s brother, who died of HIV at the age of 28, is the inspiration behind her foundation, The Dion Initiative, which focuses on child safety and anti-bullying.
“I started working on anti-bullying because I wanted to honor his memory and the anti-bullying was something I knew I could make an impact on,” Stanton says.
The Dion Initiative aims to have a lasting impact by closely studying what is working — and what isn’t working — in schools today, and spearheading programs that will make a difference.
Anti-violence, anti-bullying programs, says Stanton, need to be embedded in the schools, into each class and with each teacher, to create an environment where bullying is not tolerated — something the kids wouldn’t even consider.
Stanton has teamed up with Phoenix Children’s Hospital which, two years ago collected for the first time the number of ACES (adverse childhood experiences) that children in Arizona experience. Arizona, she says, ranks among the worst of all states.
ACES can be brought about by a myriad of things including bullying, violence in the home, or a death in the family.
“They have long term health consequences,” Stanton says, causing “toxic stress in a child’s life.” She points to research that shows unless these ACES are mitigated, kids experience “more cancer down the road, more diabetes, more drug and alcohol issues,” among the long list of physcial and mental health issues, which also includes a higher rate of suicide, according to Stanton.
“They need adults that tell them everything is going to be okay and watch over them to make sure they get the help they need,” Stanton says.
Renee Scherzer’s daughter did get the help she needed But, Scherzer says, they were forced to stand alone. The family says the school let their daughter down by allowing bullying, hazing, even some violent behavior to go on for months — practically out in the open.
Scherzer’s daughter is now healthy and thriving in a new school. She has even engaged in anti-bullying efforts to support other students on her new campus, which has a zero tolerance policy. It was a painful road to get here, but because the family advocated for their daughter, they were able to walk through this together and stronger.