With the scourge of bullying taking center stage everywhere from classrooms to courtrooms, two bat mitzva girls are telling classmates that picking on others is wrong and not at all cool.
For her mitzva project, Michelle Sapolnick cowrote a play about bullying with her best friend, which she performed before students at her former elementary school — School 18 in Iselin — at the end of the last school year. She also designed an anti-bullying brochure which she gave out after speaking about the dangers of cliques to fifth- and sixth-grade classes at Temple Emanu-El in Edison, where Michelle became a bat mitzva on Sept. 17.
Ashley Conroy, who became a bat mitzva Sept. 24 at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, decided to start an anti-bullying club at Iselin Middle School after she and a friend witnessed another student being the target of taunts.
Ashley said that after witnessing the incident she and her friend were planning on saying something to either a teacher or the offender, but the boy apologized on his own. However, they were so disturbed they decided to start a petition to form the club, which, by school rules, requires at least 10 signatures.
“We wanted to get the message out to everyone,” said Ashley, who lives in Colonia. “We got 10 really quickly so we said, ‘Okay, let’s get 20.’ But then we got 30, so we said, ‘Let’s keep going.’
“We got 110 signatures in two-and-a-half hours.”
After receiving the petition, the principal told the girls he was “amazed” at their dedication to improving the school.
Ashley, the daughter of Jacquelyn and Brian Conroy, turned 12 on Sept. 11. She said she especially loves math and geography, plays basketball, and played first base this past summer for the Colonia Cyclones traveling team.
With the school year just getting started, the girls will meet with the principal again to get the club off the ground. Ashley envisions its becoming a type of support group for bullying victims so they will no longer be scared to stand up for themselves.
“You know in the eighth grade everyone is trying to be cool and they think they can do that by being mean,” she said. “But, really all the respected kids are really the nice ones.”
Michelle, who is in the eighth grade at Iselin Middle School, said her anti-bullying play, Abby’s Emergency, was not her first foray as a playwright.
“I love writing plays,” said Michelle, who lives in Iselin and who turned 13 last month. While she had not seen any bullying incidents, she said she knew “it was really common among this generation, and I was concerned it is getting worse.”
The play revolves around a young girl who is bullied and left out of activities by a clique.
“She ends up going to a teacher and guidance counselor and it gets resolved,” said Michelle. “The clique realizes they were wrong and they all become friends. One by one they all leave the clique until there is just one person left bullying her.”
The daughter of Judy and Jay Sapolnick, the honor student made the synagogue presentation and penned the play because, she said, “I want people to learn to speak up for themselves and stay with a good group of friends and to think before they speak.”
A Girl Scout for six years who earned her Silver Award this past summer, Michelle recalled telling her Hebrew school classmates there are different ways of bullying. “It’s more than just hitting,” she emphasized.
Slights posted on the Internet will live forever, said Michelle. “Whatever they write is permanent. It can’t ever be taken back. It never goes away.”
Michelle has advice for someone who witnesses a bullying incident: “You should step in and stop it because the victim may not have a voice and needs your help.”