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Op-ed: Friendship as a Solution to Bullying

Op-ed: Friendship as a Solution to Bullying

1scottherman

I grew up being bullied in school by both kids my age as well as my older brother and his friends. When I was 12 I had decided that I wanted to be big and strong like the heroes in my comic books, and thus my journey into fitness began. I thought that if I was bigger and stronger then bullies would leave me alone, but that didn't prove to be the case. Although I was not picked on as much, I still had to defend myself from time to time, and had to defend my friends if needed. I had always been a very observant person and growing up these experiences taught me that you should always do your best to avoid any sort of physical altercation, but to never ignore a bully, because they will find someone else to pick on.

About four months ago I was involved in a road rage incident that resulted in three arrests, a banged-up vehicle, and a bit of shattered pride. Luckily, the incident did not lead to any bodily harm. When passing through an intersection in my town, the driver of a new truck with dealer plates flipped me off. I thought it might have been a friend--he was with two others--who were teasing me for not recognizing him in a new truck. So when the truck pulled off the road, I approached in my car.

Three men jumped out, and one yelled, "You want to fight, faggot?"

I've always hated that word, and I've been called that word since the second grade. When I was young it was just a generic insult, but in light of the advocacy work I do now, the word cuts even deeper.

One of guys attacked my car and managed to kick in my passengers' door panel. They also opened my doors and even attempted to kick me in the head through the passengers' side as well. I remained calm and called 911. At this point they all jumped in their car, and I followed, until they pulled over again and one got out and started to charge my car. That's when the police showed up, and one of the three ran off into the woods. (Read the full story.)

I will admit that it has been a very long time since I felt pushed so far into a corner like I was that night in late July. It took every ounce of energy I had to remain calm, cool, and collected. Just because you have muscles and fighting experience doesn't mean that bullets and baseball bats will bounce off your chest like Superman's. Anything can happen in these situations and I know now looking back that by remaining calm I was able to avoid a violent outcome. As a public figure I need to set an example: If I preach that violence is not the answer, I must live by that rule.

Since my debut on The Real World: Brooklyn I have continued to lend my support in the fight against bullying and inequality in the LGBT community. I have worked closely with organizations such as GLAAD, The Trevor Project, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and the North Shore Alliance of LGBT Youth. But this article is not about the attack on me, but rather the aftermath and how dysfunctional our judicial system is. I felt burned by my experience in the courts as a crime victim. And yet when you think nothing good can come out of a corrupt system, a beacon of hope appears unexpectedly.

The day after I filed my police report about the incident I was given the number of attorney Robert Prince, the police prosecutor who would be handling my case against Michael Leavett, one of my three attackers.

I contacted Prince that day to ask him what steps I should be taking to get justice, and compensation for the damage to my vehicle. He had told me to get an estimate from the auto body shop and send it to him. He also told me that if he needed anything else from me he would call. I decided to follow-up with Prince at least once every other week but started to get the feeling that I was being blown off. Luckily a man by the name of Don Gorton of The Anti-Violence Project of Massachusetts had caught wind of my incident and contacted me to offer his help and guidance.

Mr. Gorton broke everything down for me and took the time out of his busy schedule to prep me for my trial, pro-bono. Attorney Prince, meanwhile, did not even once call me to discuss what happened or prepare me for trial. In fact, my vehicle was repaired a couple weeks before my trial with Mr. Leavitt; the damages ran a few hundred dollars over the original estimate. I dropped off the new appraisal for him and he let two weeks go by without a single phone call. On the morning of the trial he rudely told me that I didn't prepare the information as he needed it and that I should fix it right away. (I felt very insulted, as if I were supposed to know proper procedure without his having told me what he needed.)

Prince took a generous five minutes to prepare me for the trial before I took the witness stand. I quickly realized after telling the whole story from start to finish that Prince had no clue about what exactly happened to me. My retelling of the incident ended with two of the men, Dean Bidgood and Michael Smith, being arrested and Leavitt running off. Prince asked me five times "what else" happened between Leavitt and me. My response each time was to repeat that, "he ran into the woods." Frustrated, Prince said he was done questioning me, sat down, covered his face with his hands, and then let Leavett's attorney attempt to rip apart my statement without once trying to intervene and help. Leavitt's attorney badgered me on the sentence structure of my statement claiming that I didn't write everything down that I had just testified to in court, including my response to Bidgood when he taunted me during the attack:

"What are you going to do you pussy, call 911?"

My actual response that I repeated in court was: "You know what, that sounds like a great idea. You are going to spend the night in jail."

However, what I wrote in my statement was only: "You know what, that sounds like a great idea."

I knew what he was trying to do to me, but I did my best to hold my ground on the stand. After the courtroom bullying was over, Leavitt's attorney and Prince approached the judge. Leavitt's attorney claimed that there was not sufficient evidence to substantiate the charges against him. Adding insult to injury, Prince stated that he was both appalled and amazed by my inability to answer his questions recalling the event and that he had never been so embarrassed.

At this point I was extremely frustrated. Prince's negligence was simply incredible. I just wanted to leave the courtroom as I am a very honest person and spoke nothing but the truth. If Prince were prepared for trial, he would have known the facts and not been "embarrassed" by the truth.

However, as I said in the beginning, just when you think nothing good can come out of a corrupt system, a kind gesture can completely change your outlook. After the case against Leavitt was dismissed I went outside the courthouse to cool off and speak with two of Mr. Gorton's associates who had attended the trial.

As we were discussing how awful the trial had been, Leavitt, his father, and his lawyer came outside to speak with me. Leavitt, despite having all of the charges against him dismissed, took it upon himself to approach me, shake my hand, and apologize for his actions on the night of the incident. He said that he later found out who I actually was and learned of all the work I do in the fight against bullying and inequality in the LGBT community. He had told me that the experience had opened his eyes and that he realized that he needed to change his ways and become a better person in the eyes of the community. He said that he had felt awful about the incident and wanted to apologize earlier, but his lawyer wanted him to wait until the trial was over. I shook Leavitt's hand. As I looked him in the eyes, I could see that his apology was sincere. We decided to look past the incident and move forward as friends.

I believe that things happen for a reason. Although my experience in court was an absolute disaster, maybe in the future Leavitt will find himself in a situation where he can be the one who remains calm, cool, and collected and does the right thing. As for me, I am happy to have made a new friend. I used to think that to stop a bully all you had to do was find a way to defeat him, with violence as a last resort. Until this incident I never looked at friendship as the ultimate solution to bullying, but now I can see that it has more power than I could ever have known.

SCOTT HERMAN is personal trainer who was on The Real World: Brooklyn and founded ScottHermanFitness.com in 2008.

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