by Tori Hamby

A 17-year-old girl from Long Island, N.Y. took her life after classmates leave mean comments on several of her social networking pages last year. A hateful Myspace post sent by a friend’s mother posing as a teenage boy caused a 13-year-old St. Louis girl to hang herself in 2007.

Along with the increased use of text messaging, online instant messengers and social networking websites among the nation’s teenagers during the past decade, headlines such as these have warned of how the relative anonymity of the Internet creates an environment ripe for cyberbullying. However, as bullies move from the playground into cyberspace, a Cornelius woman is working with Mecklenburg County students and parents to turn bystanders, those who choose to turn their backs and ignore the victims of bullying, into upstanders.

“We take those kids who will stand around and just watch their peers being bullied and teach them how to deal with those situations,” said Arlene Berkman, founder of the Foundation for Respect Ability, an organization formed to combat bullying in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and surrounding schools. “When you get those bystanders to become upstanders the whole dynamic of the bullying situation changes.”

As part of its efforts to share its message of tolerance and respect with the community, the organization will bring Peter Yarrow, of folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, and children’s performer Billy Jonas to the Levine Center for the Arts’ Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St., Charlotte, Oct. 30 at 3 p.m. Proceeds from ticket sales will help support the foundation’s “Don’t Laugh at Me” program, which sends anti-bullying educators into local school and organizations to teach students and parents how to combat and deal with bullying.

The songs performed will “be directed toward respectability and how to make schools and the community a safer, more nurturing place,” according to Berkman. Even adults may find hope in the show’s message, Berkman said, as grown-up bullies may sometimes be found in the workplace and adults can be just as likely as kids to hide behind their keyboards while spreading rumors about their peers.

“If a person, child, adult – whoever – can’t say something to someone’s face, they shouldn’t be saying it at all,” Berkman said. “We are trying to put a stop to it by having students realize that if someone sends up a hurtful remark about a person, it’s up to a friend to say ‘hey, this isn’t right. Don’t do it.’ If it’s not accepted, it won’t have any impact.”

Berkman said she was inspired to create the Foundation for Respect Ability, which started its work in January after realizing that the Charlotte-area had changed since she moved to Cornelius in 2000.

“When I came down to the South in 2000, I noticed the kids were very respectful,” Berkman said. “They said ‘yes ma’am’; they opened doors for others. I miss that not only from kids but from people. Having kind, respectful people sets the Charlotte area apart, especially when people are looking for areas to retire or relocate.”

Since starting up in January, the foundation has conducted an introductory workshop featuring the foundation’s mentor Mark Weiss, who created the Operation Respect Project, a similar organization in New York City; implemented a pilot program for teachers and students at Pineville Elementary School; performed anti-bullying concerts at Woodlawn School in Mooresville, McKinney Academy in Davidson and St. Alban’s Church in Davidson; and conducted a song writing workshop at the Ada Jenkins Center.

To purchase tickets to the concert, go online to www.carolinatix.org, call the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center box office at 704-372-1000 or visit the Belk Theater box office, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets range from $10 to $49.50. Sponsorship opportunities to purchase a discounted block of tickets to give those who may not be able to afford to attend are available.

The organization also will hold a VIP event before and after the concert for individual donors who have donated at least $250. Each VIP adult may bring a child free-of-charge to experience the pre- and post-concert activities. In addition to VIP seating, a 2 p.m. backstage tour will give guests a peek into the preparation that goes into a concert and guests may meet Yarrow and Jonas at a post-concert reception. Call 704-438-9798 to reserve VIP passes, which will be handed out upon arrival to the concert.

For more information about the Foundation for Respect Ability, go online to www.xbullying.org.