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Duke University student wants to spread anti-bullying program nationwide

Seeing his brother tormented inspired Matthew Kaplan to start the Be ONE Project. The workshops encourage middle schoolers to celebrate their similarities and differences.

Seeing his brother tormented inspired Matthew Kaplan to start the Be ONE Project. The workshops encourage middle schoolers to celebrate their similarities and differences.

DURHAM, N.C. — “You suck.” “You’re worthless.” “What’s wrong with you?”

Six years ago, Matthew Kaplan discovered that his younger brother, Josh, was receiving messages like these from fellow students via text and Facebook.

Their parents and teachers tried to intervene. But the harassment continued, and Josh grew increasingly withdrawn.

Finally, Matthew took it upon himself to do something. As an eighth grader, he created an anti-bullying workshop that he later presented to his brother’s class.

“During the program, the kids who were bullying Josh apologized to him. And that was incredible,” said Kaplan, now 19. “It was in that moment that I realized there is power in this program.”

The experience inspired Kaplan to start a nonprofit, the Be ONE Project—an acronym for Be Open to New Experiences. Since 2011, he has shared his free anti-bullying program with more than 4,600 middle school students, mostly in his home state of Arizona.

The half-day workshops are led by high school or college students, like Kaplan. They start with activities designed to get students to break out of their cliques and make new friends.

As the day progresses, students open up. They learn that everyone has insecurities and difficult times. And they realize the impact their words and actions have on each other.

The workshop often ends with students exchanging apologies and hugs.

Teachers tell Kaplan that the effects last the rest of the year. Hundreds of students have gone on to volunteer with the group.

“Everyone should be able to go to a school where they feel … valued and accepted by their classmates,” Kaplan said. “And I want to make sure that they can.”

Kaplan is studying positive psychology at Duke University and wants to find ways to make schools more inclusive and supportive. He and his team continue their workshops in Arizona, and he plans to ultimately expand his program nationwide.

CNN’s Kathleen Toner spoke with Kaplan about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: You started this program because of your brother. Had you ever been a victim of bullying, too?

Kaplan: I was lucky that I wasn’t particularly picked on, but I knew what it was like to be on the outside. It wasn’t always easy being gay at an Arizona middle school. I carried the weight of knowing that I was different, and at times that weight felt crushing. I was also one of the only Jewish kids in my school.

So while my brother was the big motivator for me, a lot of what I created is what I wish someone had been able to do for me. We don’t get into race or orientation too much in the program, but inclusiveness is the theme. You should be able to feel accepted for whoever you are.

CNN: Your work primarily focuses on middle school students. Why is that?

Kaplan: Middle school is this critical window. It’s a time when kids are getting access to cell phones and social media. They’re really thinking about who they are and how they want to be perceived by others. And I think that that’s a really important age to really nail down the message of “How do you want to use the tools that you have at your disposal?”

Cyberbullying is particularly dangerous because kids don’t see the other person’s face when they hit send. They’re removed. And cyberbullying can happen at any time, anywhere. It’s not just limited to when kids are at school. So kids are always barraged with this message that they’re worthless, and that’s really dangerous.

CNN: So how does your program address this?

Kaplan: I want to help kids understand that their actions can hurt others. I don’t believe that bullies are bad kids. Bullying is just bad behavior, and I believe that behavior can change. So the Be ONE Project is all about helping kids make that connection that they’re powerful. And the things that they say to and about each other have the power to change the way that someone feels about themselves.

The term “peer pressure” is thrown around a lot, and usually it’s meant as a negative thing. But I believe that we can actually harness peer pressure for good. What if it was cool to be kind? That’s what positive peer pressure is all about.

CNN: You also try to combat bullying in other ways.

Kaplan: We do community outreach where we screen anti-bullying films and hold guided discussions. We also recognize that while bullying often starts in middle school, it doesn’t end there. So we are piloting a high school club in Phoenix.

We’re also starting a program that will help parents navigate social media and talk to their kids about these issues. In the spring, we’ll start having retreats to follow up with middle school kids after they’ve been through the program — we want to find ways to help keep those messages alive at their schools.

What started as a program for my brother’s class is now more of a movement. We want to create a culture where being inclusive and kind is the norm.