BEAUMONT, CA — Cameron Thompson Southard might be Southern California’s most famous reformed bully. The 12-year-old made a name for himself and had a brush with celebrity when national news outlets caught on to the boy’s bullying redemption story in 2014.

He’s part of a growing national effort to quash bullying which experts say has become a serious public health problem that has lasting effects on kids. They say physical bullying, emotional bullying, cyberbullying, and sexting can lead to depression, reckless behavior, substance abuse, self-harm and suicide. And bullying starts when kids are young.

Indeed, about 90 percent of elementary school kids get bullied, and six in 10 have been bullies themselves, according to a Stanford University Medical Center study.

Cameron’s bullying ways were discovered during an after-school program at Tournament Hills Elementary School. A second-grader at the time, he rounded up a group of kids to tease a boy who brought a Barbie doll to school.

“I thought it was dumb. Like, ‘why is he bringing a Barbie?'” Cameron said. “So I got friends to make fun of him … like ‘why are you making this weird choice?’, or what I thought was weird.”

Teachers told Cameron’s mom what happened. She made her son apologize by writing a letter to the classmate he targeted with taunts.

“I was on top of it but then I dropped it because I thought this was resolved,” Jessica Southard says. “He wrote his letter, he apologized, I apologized to the mom and then I dropped it.”

But a week later, Cameron told his mom that he still felt horrible about bullying the boy who brought Barbie to school. With the help of a family friend, Cameron and his mom made a video, “Confessions of a Bully.” Cameron narrates his story over a dramatic re-creation of the bullying incident and the touching moment that led to an anti-bullying club at school.

“I knew I needed someone to help me start the club so I asked the boy I hurt,” Cameron says in the video. “Even though I bullied him he was able to get through it and always has a smile. We’ve formed a friendship now. He’s pretty strong and I know he will be a perfect partner to start our club.”

Cameron appeared on national news segments, including NBC’s “Today” show. He even appeared on a Japanese morning show via satellite to tell his story. Hasbro named him one of 10 “community action heroes” for “making an extraordinary mark on the world through service.”

He has since become a youth leader of a movement promoting the power of forgiveness. Some people even call him “Mr. Anti-Bully.”

Confessions of a Bully from Ashley Nicole Video on Vimeo.

“I was a bully. … I made a mistake. And it was a really bad mistake,” Cameron said. “I realized this isn’t who I want to be. I don’t want to be this rude, irritating person. And so I decided to switch everything around.”

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That made all the difference for Cameron and the boy he picked on, who forgave Cameron and became his former bully’s friend. Experts say forgiveness is a crucial part in a healing for victims and bullies.

“When a person can take responsibility for pain they have caused others, they too can begin to heal,” licensed marriage and family therapist Rochelle Whitson says. “Forgiveness is to stop being angry at someone who has wronged you. Sometimes people confuse forgiveness with condonement. They worry that if they forgive, they are saying the behavior was OK, or that it wasn’t wrong for them to be treated that way. But forgiveness is about the person who was wronged. It is letting go of the energy of the pain the bullying caused. When one holds on to that pain, they remain tied to those events and the bullying continues to have power in their life.”

Many celebrities, including pop singer Selena Gomez, have used the public stage to promote forgiveness as a bullying antidote.

“The trick is to focus on the love,” Gomez said in a 2014 public appearance. “And what I want you guys to do with every rude comment you get, every person that tries to hurt you — personally or through the internet — I want you to forgive them.”

In California, about 40 percent of girls and 35 percent of boys reported they were bullied in middle school, according to the state education department’s 2017 “Healthy Kids Survey.”

Ever since second grade, Cameron has done all a seventh grader can to fight to lower that percentage. His grade school anti-bullying club boasted 236 members by the time he left Tournament Hills Elementary, and oftentimes the club was so packed, they had to meet in shifts. He started a new club at his middle school, Highland Academy, that’s making an impact, too. And kids around the country have followed his lead to start peer-led anti-bullying clubs of their own, including one all the way in Florida that launched after Cameron traveled to Atlanta to spread his anti-bullying message as a guest speaker at the Young Leaders Summit.

“At this point, I’m really proud of him,” Jessica Southard said. “It was his principal and I working on the club in the beginning, and now we’re at the point where … he’s the one that plans out what they do and gets people there and advertises. He’s really grown to the point where he can just take this on.”

Nowadays, Cameron is a well-oiled anti-bully machine. He has a system to deliver “kits” to anyone interested in starting a club at their school, complete with poster-making materials and swag like books and bracelets to spread the message. (Click here if you’d like to contact him and get a kit for your school.)

Sometimes, Cameron even steps in to squash trouble when someone’s being bullied in front of him. It’s happened twice.

“”If I see (bullying) I don’t care where I am, even if i’m in the middle of a football play. I will stop what I am doing and run over there and let them to realize what they are doing. So, maybe next time they’ll think a little,” Cameron said. “‘Would you like this happening to you?'”

Images courtesy: Jessica Southard

About This Series

Throughout 2018, Patch has been looking at society’s roles and responsibilities in bullying and a child’s unthinkable decision to end their own life in hopes we might offer solutions that save lives.

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