They sound like superheroes, but in fact Kelly Howard and his wife, Myiea Coy, who formed the Bully Avengers Club several years ago, are a couple of civilian parents who have seen the deleterious effects of bullying on one of their children, Jae Alana.
They talked to the teachers and administrators at their daughter's school. They talked to other parents. They even talked to the bully.
But nothing really worked until they came up with the idea of making a movie about it. Coy, an actress and screenwriter, co-wrote with Jeffrey Lorenzo and directed Bully Avengers, a film short, which they produced with Howard in 2011. They have been showing it in schools, primarily in the Los Angeles area, ever since. They will be screening the 18-minute film at West Wind Elementary School in Lancaster, a suburb of L.A., at 6 p.m. on May 16.
The film, in which kids, inspired by the story of David and Goliath, band together, don special sunglasses and use strategies out of Sun-Tzu's The Art of War to fight back, might be viewed as condoning a kind of reverse bullying, or "bullying the bully."
But what Coy and Howard seek is something subtler. They want to generate what they call "a conversation piece," not unlike an after-school special from an earlier era, in which they raise a lot of questions and provide no simple answers.
When I spoke over the phone to Coy, she told me of some of the remarkable developments that have occurred at school assemblies after they have shown the film. At the assemblies, led by child actress Hallie Lou Balch, a star of the film and host of the Disney show Game On, they ask the kids to raise their hands if they have ever been bullied. Then they ask them to raise their hands if they have ever bullied anyone.
Coy, who enunciates her words with clarity, as befits her training as an actress, always admits to the kids that she herself was a bully. "I'm always honest with them," she says. "We don't want to be anti-bully either."
She says that it is not uncommon for "apologies to happen onstage" at the assemblies. And she says that the kids "feel very empowered at coming up with their own way" of dealing with the bullying syndrome, which often implicates everyone since some of the victims have been bullies themselves. Then there are the bystanders who provide "background laughter" that "amplifies a situation" when a victim is being bullied.
Four years after being bullied, Jae Alana, 13, is doing well, and Coy, who just had the couple's third child, is working on a screenplay to adapt the short into a full-length feature.
Howard, whose day job is managing a branch of Le Pain Quotidien, a Belgian bakery/restaurant, says that he was never bullied, but he grew up as an outsider of a sort. He is the son of an African-American father and a white mother who were living in Sweden during his childhood. As one of the few biracial kids in his school, Howard, who, like his wife, speaks in a soothing tone, devoid of anger or bitterness, can understand what it is like to be different.
Many victims of bullying are indeed perceived to be different. They often do not adhere to social norms. It is not so much that they are loners; it is more that they do not want to conform to an asinine template that is imposed on them by callow teens.
As Bob Dylan once sang, "I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them," a lyric I quoted last year when I wrote about bullying.
When people refer to bullying as an epidemic, they may be overstating their case. According to stopbullying.gov, the percentage of kids in grades 6-12 who say that they have been bullied is 28 percent, not 98 percent.
But that is still unacceptable. It is hard to say if bullying is occurring more now than in the past, but there is no question that, due to our 24/7 news coverage, we are now reading and reporting about it with greater frequency. That is a good thing because bullying itself has morphed, to an extent, beyond schools to cyberspace.
Still, it typically originates in the classroom, which is why Howard and Coy have focused on showing Bully Avengers in schools.
The film short, which was shot on a low budget and may need to be edited, and the teaser at www.bullyavengers.com conclude with this provocative note: "American schools harbor 2.1 million bullies and 2.7 million of their victims. Choose Your Side."
While I enjoyed the propulsive beat to the film's theme song, "Can't Back Down," by rap artist, J.R., I might have preferred a refrain of "Can't Give Up."
It is true that sometimes it can be helpful to confront a bully. But overall, the message should be one that is less about confrontation, since that can lead to acts of violence and death, and more about recognizing the beauty of being different.
As I wrote last year, "The way to counter bullying is to be true to yourself and to realize that if you are different... you are much more likely, as you get older, to enrich the world with your unique perspective on life."
I applaud Myiea Coy and Kelly Howard for their efforts as bully avengers. They are helping to improve and, in some cases, save the lives of children, teens and adults.
Bullying is not and never should be regarded as a rite of passage in childhood. Bullying can scar and traumatize kids to the point that they may consider taking their lives or the lives of others.
But kids should NEVER do either of those things.
I cannot emphasize enough something I wrote last year: "As painful as life may be, you should NEVER commit suicide or homicide! There are always much healthier and less destructive options available to you."
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.