As a highly recognized educator for the past 21 years and a drama teacher for the past 14 years at Beaufort (South Carolina) High School, LaRaine Fess has positively affected the lives of thousands of high school students.
However, her greatest impact might be through her tireless crusade against bullying via the medium of theatre. Thus far, she has written two original plays regarding bullying for her theatre students.
In recognition of their many accomplishments, Fess and the Beaufort High School Theatre Students will receive the 2019 National High School Heart of the Arts Award June 29 at the NFHS’ 100th Annual Summer Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana.
It all began in 2013, when Fess’ son was bullied on a school bus.
“When he was in the third grade, he was bullied by a female middle schooler,” Fess said. “A friend of his and he rode the bus from their school to Beaufort High School. I loved it because that would allow me to continue with rehearsals and not have to stop to go get him. I felt comfortable with him riding the bus because he had a friend with him, and the elementary kids were separated - small kids up front; big kids in the back.
“One day, my son made the mistake of sitting in the ‘big kid’ section. This girl saw where he was sitting and proceeded to call him hateful names and made him cry. He didn’t know what to say, nor did his friend. This went on for two weeks, and my son kept making excuses for me to come pick him up. Finally, his friend’s mom told me. She also had a long talk with the bully and the mother, and he was never bullied again on the bus.
“On the other hand, I was devastated. I couldn’t believe that I failed as a mom by not keeping my baby safe. So, I decided to turn this lemon into lemonade. I told my students about what happened with my son and asked them ‘Is bullying still an issue in school?’ Their answers blew me out of the water. Overwhelmingly, they started sharing situations in which they had been a victim, a bystander and even a bully.
“So, we decided to not be quiet anymore. We wanted to teach kids about bullying, and we wanted to give students their voice. I started to really focus on teaching character development and conflict resolution in class. We decided that we all had to believe in the show and walk our talk. No hypocrites. The message will always be the same - but the delivery is different.”
After “ripping off the Band-Aid,” Fess and her theatre classes made a promise to one another and to themselves to take a stand against bullying. They made a pact to never be a bully, a victim or a bystander, and they promised that when they would see something, they would say something. With that promise in place, seven years later, more than 300 theatre students have been part of the solution as they have performed for more than 7,000 students. The show is entitled “When You See Something, Say Something.”
“Because bullying is everywhere, when you see it, you need to say something about it,” Fess said. “When we were laying the foundation for the show, national security was getting a lot of press. Their motto was ‘If you see something, say something.’ A student said he sees bullying every day, so I said well, ‘WHEN you see something, say something.’ Don’t just stand there.
“Our intent is to show students how to handle any ‘bullying situations’; to reach out to the bullies in hopes of changing their minds so they can’t start bullying; to give examples of bullying, and to inspire students to celebrate differences.”
Fess’ goal is to keep performing and talking so students will know what to do when they see bullying and what to do when they are a victim. Their positions were “If we stay quiet, then the bullies win. We are the only school in the state with an inhouse performance on such an important topic. Most districts bring in speakers to talk about this issue. Beaufort County allows its students to teach their peers about bullying.”
In 2017, they presented some of the show for the National High School League Convention in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Dr. Akil E. Ross, Sr., who was Chapin (South Carolina) High School principal at the time and National Principal of the Year, saw a few scenes and asked if they could come to Chapin and perform for the entire school of approximately 1,300 students. Two years later, they presented to high school athletes and athletic directors at the Leadership Convention in Columbia, South Carolina.
Over the years, numerous prominent individuals have supported Fess’ efforts. Among them is South Carolina House of Representatives member Shannon S. Erickson. In a letter of support for her nomination for the “National High School Heart of the Arts Award,” Erickson said the following:
“Back in 2011, a child was bullied on a school bus and a parent sought solutions to not only help her child (and others) deal with this circumstance, but also to empower children to be positive role models and activists for this growing problem. Mrs. LaRaine Fess, a parent and an educator, had a mission and turned to her Beaufort High School drama students for their help and insight to develop an action plan.”
During 2016, 2017 and 2018, Fess and her theatre students were recognized by the Beaufort County Council for their work in taking a stand against bullying. Among those recognitions, last October the Beaufort County Council proudly gave them a declaration of “Anti-Bully Month.”
“Our county council recognized us for our program,” Fess said. “As part of that, we attended a meeting. My favorite part of it was performing for Gov. Nikki Haley. She was amazing and kind. Our school received a resolution for our performance, and we are now in the state house history books.”
Since 2012, the Rotary of Low Country has been a very active partner with Beaufort High School Theatre in helping them take a stand against bullying. It has supported them in presenting programs at conventions in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; and Baltimore, Maryland. In addition, they work together to get out the message to all sixth-graders in the district. In 2017, Fess received the Paul Harris Fellow Award from the Rotary of Low Country.
One of the play’s great “success stories” has been that of Luke Durbin, who was a participating student in the play productions during their first year. Born female, Durbin has identified as male since age three. During his high school years, Durbin struggled with confusion regarding his personal identity, and suffered from depression, anxiety, self-harm and an eating disorder.
“The show provided me a platform to express those feelings in a healthy, appropriate manner,” Durbin said. “Eventually, I discovered that this was all symptomatic of a gender identity crisis. Mrs. Fess and the drama department provided a safe space that allowed me to accept myself without fear or judgment.”
As the “When You See Something, Say Something” initiative enters its seventh year of existence, the groundwork clearly has been laid for many positive things to happen in this area during the years to come.
“I wish all districts would solve this problem themselves instead of hiring out,” Fess began. “Here is what I have learned. My students can solve any problem that comes their way. As their teacher, I should encourage them and guide them. I would love to be able to share with other schools what worked for me so others can do it too. I am not planning to stop with this show until I am told to or until my eight-year-old graduates from high school.
“I want to create a safe environment where students feel safe and loved. Love is a powerful thing. Too much can make people conceited and hateful. Too little can make one mean and hateful, too.”
John Gillis is associate director of video services of the National Federation of State High School Associations, and administrator of both the National High School Heart of the Arts Award and the National High School Spirit of Sport Award programs.