ELLSWORTH -- She was a classmate of Jacob Wetterling. She remembers vividly the day her friend went missing 27 years ago. Now she works with families of missing persons and teaches kids and teens about personal and online safety.

“I want to learn everything I can about this so this never happens again,” Jacob Wetterling Resource Center Program Manager Alison Feigh told Ellsworth Middle School students Monday, Feb. 13. “Jacob believed things should be fair. He was a really good friend to other kids.”

Wetterling’s disappearance from a country road near his St. Joseph, Minn., home in October 1989 motivated Feigh to pursue this career path. She spends much of her time educating students about bullying, online safety and sexual abuse prevention. The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center is a program of Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center. Middle school counselor Kelly Kyllo is convinced Feigh’s messages resonate with students.

“I would say that this presentation had a powerful impact on our students,” Kyllo said. “We strive to incorporate the message into our students' everyday lives weeks, even months later.”

Feigh’s presentation, titled “Bystander to Upstander,” showed kids how developing empathy for others can combat bullies.

“Empathy is about connecting,” Feigh said. “Harmful behavior is about disconnecting.”

Students listed places bullying thrives in schools: Places where adults are not always present such as lockers, hallways, cafeterias, recess and on buses.

“There aren’t adults to call it out,” Feigh said. “But we can all have empathy and call out bullying behavior.

“Bystanders see it and just walk by. Upstanders see it and try to stop it.”

What prevents people from standing up for others? Feigh and students agreed sometimes people don’t want to be called out themselves, made a target or made fun of. Some may think it’s not their problem.

“Don’t go after a person causing harm when you’re becoming the upstander,” Feigh said. “Don’t engage the people causing the harm. But how can we engage and support the people being harmed?”

Sending a supportive text to someone doesn’t add fuel to the fire, while making them feel less alone, Feigh said.

She defined bystander science as the notion that, the more people witness a crime, the less likely people will help. They think someone else is going to do it. People don’t want to be noticed.

She challenged students to find a way to change the school’s culture when it comes to bullying behavior. Get an adult involved; speak your mind; don’t try to resolve issues via text as there is no sarcasm font. Things can easily be misconstrued over a text.

“If someone is treating you poorly, it is not a reflection of your value,” Feigh said. “Technology itself isn’t a bad thing, but it’s how people use it.”

Feigh said science proves people who spend too much time staring at their phone and computer screens have lower self esteem, less friends, are less confident, sleep less and feel less normal.

“When you’re online, you’re trying to craft your online presence, rather than focusing on who you really are,” Feigh said. “We compare ourselves to others too much.”

She used first day of school photos posted on Instagram or Facebook as an example. Some people define their worthiness by how many “likes” they get on a social media post.

“It doesn’t matter if you have three or 30 likes,” Feigh said.

About half of teens have been cyberbullied in the last year, students learned. What makes it different than traditional bullying?

  • You might not know the actual person doing it or where it’s coming from.
  • It can come at you from anywhere. Your phone is always with you. You can’t avoid it like you can avoid a neighborhood corner where a bully hangs out.
  • People can’t tell if the tone has gone too far.
  • A bully can hide behind the screen.
  • Rumors and harmful comments can go viral.

Cyberbullying typically increases steadily until age 15, when it slowly begins to decline, Feigh added. Refusing to comment or not sharing a bullying post is not enough.

“If you laugh at it, you’re a part of it,” Feigh said. “Bystanders can perpetrate it by forwarding it on. Upstanders flag it, and make others aware.

“Only one in five teens who witness cyberbullying joins in. But walking by is not helping. It helps the person who is harming. Don’t escalate it, but don’t walk by. You are the eyes, the ears and the voices of places adults cannot be.”

For more information on Feigh’s work and presentations, visit gundersenhealth.org.