Rochester teen takes a stand against bullying

/ 28 April 2012 / jennifer

Matthew Stolle, Rochester Post-Bulletin, April 28, 2012 –

Two years ago, Lexi Grafe discovered a personal mission: To speak out against bullying.

The Mayo High School senior wasn’t always so passionate about the issue. She always knew bullying existed, knew it happened, knew that people are capable of saying and doing cruel things to each other. But neither she nor anyone who was close to her had ever been bullied — until one day, someone she cared for was.

And that changed her life.

Since then, Grafe has waged a campaign to awaken people to the emotional costs of bullying. She has spoken to numerous peers in classrooms across the region.

An anti-bullying lesson plan she developed with another student has been taught to thousands of students.

Her efforts have a single aim: To create a culture that no longer tolerates bullying, of creating a new normal, even though a world free of bullying, as far as anyone can recall, has never really existed.

It doesn’t matter, Grafe said. She has to try.

“Just one person can make a difference,” Grafe said. “That’s the main thing.”

Taking charge

Such a world has its own code. A person doesn’t stand by when another person is being bullied.

One day, Grafe saw a classmate shove a smaller student into the locker and keep on walking. She confronted the offender and let it be known that such behavior was wrong and harmful.

“I’m like, ‘No, you did not need to do that,’” she said. He apologized, she said.

Grafe spreads her message through her participation in Teen Council, a group of a dozen students from area schools that travels the region talking about issues important to teens. The animating idea behind Teen Council is that students are more likely to listen to advice from their peers than a group of older, out-of-touch graybeards.

Teen Council members talk to students about body image, healthy relationships, birth control and many other topics. When Grafe joined the council last year, she argued that a lesson on bullying should be developed and taught to students. It has since become one of the most popular lessons sought by schools and teachers, an official said.

“She shared with us why she was really passionate about it, and a lot of kids got behind it,” said Ehryn Barthelme, the Rochester area education manager for Planned Parenthood, which sponsors and funds Teen Council.

Close to home

Grafe’s own eyes were opened to the emotional toll exacted by bullying when her younger brother, Isaiah, was bullied.

Isaiah, like Lexi, was born deaf. Both hear with the help of cochlear implants.

Deanne Grafe, their mother, said she first became aware that something was wrong when Isaiah asked to switch gym classes at his Rochester middle school. She learned that before gym, Isaiah was being bullied by a bigger classmate.

After contacting the school, Deanne Grafe was told by school officials that they had the matter under control. They would assign a paraprofessional to keep the classmate away from Isaiah.

Instead, two weeks later, Isaiah was attacked by the student and hospitalized. Isaiah’s assailant pleaded guilty to assault charges. Isaiah’s parents eventually transferred their son from the Rochester school to Stewartville.

Lexi Grafe said she couldn’t help but feel responsible for what had happened to her younger brother.

“It was a huge shock,” she said. “I felt like I should have done more, because I was his big sister, and I was supposed to, should have protected him.”

Local, national recognition

Since joining Teen Council, Lexi has donated more than 350 hours to teaching anti-bullying and other lessons to students. She would do more, she says, but a hectic schedule of volleyball, school and volunteer activities make that difficult.

“Sometimes, I have a test I can’t miss, so then other Teen Council members teach it,” Grafe said.

Her work has been honored both locally and nationally. Grafe was named a distinguished finalist in the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards for her anti-bullying efforts. She also has won the KTTC-TV Hero Award.

“I love teaching. I really do like helping people. I like knowing I’m making a difference,” she said.

How does she know her efforts are having an effect?

Grafe said she realizes she can’t change an entire culture with a single 40-minute talk. Nor does she expect mass conversions to a kinder, gentler world from every student who hears her message.

But if just a few students take it to heart, it might avert the kind of experience that happened to her brother and her family.

“All it takes is for one person to stand up for a (bullied person), Grafe said, “and that one moment can change a life.”