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Bryan Stow, beaten 8 years ago at Dodgers Stadium, delivers anti-bullying message in Santa Rosa

Dozens of Herbert Slater Middle School students, and even a few teachers, raised their hands Friday when Bryan Stow asked if anyone in the packed gymnasium had been a bullying victim.

Stow himself was one eight years ago. The 50-year-old San Francisco Giants fan said he was targeted by “adult bullies” that brutally attacked him after an opening day game at Dodgers Stadium in March 2011.

He suffered severe brain injuries that caused the former paramedic to essentially live in five different hospitals over three years. The effects of the beating forced him to have to relearn how to walk and talk. These days he can do both, with his sense of humor still evident.

Stow was back in Santa Rosa for the second time in three years, continuing the work he thinks was the main reason he survived the vicious attack. He gave a presentation decrying bullying to hundreds of students at Herbert Slater and Santa Rosa middle schools, weaving into his speech a powerful series of photos and videos that captured his remarkable recovery.

“I’m finding my purpose again,” Stow said softly, sitting behind a folding table propped up on the floor of the Herbert Slater gym. “I’m on a mission to tell my story of survival. I want to stop bullies from hurting anyone else, and there are important choices you guys can make to stop bullying.”

Don’t be a bystander, be an “upstander,” he said, meaning lead by example, help others, treat people with kindness and respect.

Stow has delivered his message to more than 350 schools in California over the last four years. In 2019, the Bryan Stow Foundation enabled him to make his first appearance on the East Coast, speaking in Maryland in June, said his mother, Ann Stow, who accompanied him Friday in Santa Rosa.

Nowadays, bullying takes myriad forms. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services describes it as targeted physical or verbal conduct, made in person, in writing or online, that stokes fear or emotional distress.

National Center for Education statistics show that more than one of five students has reported being bullied, and the percentage of individuals that have experienced cyberbullying nearly has doubled to 34% between 2007 and 2016, the most recent data available.

Disciplinary data tied to bullying at Santa Rosa public schools was not readily available Friday, but administrators said they have made progress on the problem in recent years. City schools offer an anonymous reporting mobile app, and Santa Rosa Middle School, for example, has empowered students to become school ambassadors and help resolve bullying issues, Principal Jason Matlon said.

“I think we’re trending in the right direction but that does not mean we’ve solved the problem,” Matlon said. “This is a human behavior that unfortunately has been around since the beginning of time. But things are different now. We have phones. So we need to do more.”

Students who have been bullied are more likely to experience high levels of suicidal-related behavior, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a 2014 report. It’s that danger that Santa Rosa school district officials are focusing their attention.

“I think it’s turning in the right direction for bullying,” Santa Rosa Assistant Superintendent Steve Mizera said. “What we’re feeling is there’s a growing increase on anxiety and depression that we’re seeing from our youngsters. Causation? Everyone likes to say social media, but it’s hard to separate that from the fires. ... There’s an increased level of stress that I don’t think is one-source related.”

The theme for Herbert Slater this school year is empathy. It’s a message Stow emphasized during his hourlong presentation Friday, calling on students to forge friendships with people they might not naturally gravitate toward.

“It never hurts to have more friends,” he said.

Stow’s presentation delivered a message that can break through the usual anti-bullying campaigns that students hear, said Karen McMahon, an eighth grade math teacher at Herbert Slater. By openly discussing the disabilities that could make him a target for bullies, she thinks there is something transcendent about his message.

“You could just see it in their faces,” McMahon said. “I talked to my students about it - a lot of staff did - afterwards, and just hearing what they got out of it was so meaningful.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter ?@YousefBaig.

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