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When kids are bullied or bullies, parents often don't know what's happening

Oct. 18, 2012 at 12:36 PM ET

When Elizabeth Chenoweth’s father found out she was being bullied by a friend, he couldn’t believe that all the terrible things she was told him really happened. "I was doubtful.  And then regretful, because everything she was saying was correct," he told TODAY. "And it was, like, 'Oh my gosh, what is going on in his mind?  Why would he do that?'"

Similarly, Melanie Gregory couldn't believe it when she discovered that her high-achieving son, Tyler Gregory, had stooped to bullying behavior.  She noticed Tyler had posted inappropriate things about Elizabeth on Facebook.

"I was devastated when I saw this stuff on his Facebook page.  I was more hurt, I think, because I was like, 'What am I doing wrong?  Why is he doing this?'" Melanie told TODAY.

Melanie told her son to delete the nasty things he’d posted on Facebook and cut off contact with Elizabeth. She believed he would stop. He did not.   

It's a tricky balance for parents: monitoring their teens yet giving them their space as well. In a new survey by DoSomething.org, 70% of students reported seeing bullying online. Tim Hannah, the father of one of Tyler’s friends, wasn't even aware of what was happening with his son and his friends. 

"You're not getting the text messages, you know, you're not seeing all this other stuff.  And bullying is a lot different than it was when I was a kid. "

It started out, of course, much more innocently. Elizabeth met Scott Hannah when his best friend was dating her brother, and they started hanging out, although they attend different high schools. But Scott’s close-knit group of friends, including Tyler, decided they didn’t like Elizabeth, who also goes by Eliza -- even though they’d never met her.

"They started telling me that I wasn't wanted, he never liked me.  Like, I don't have any friends, I'm very ugly and I look like a troll. And, like, I'm fat and just, like, things that girls don't wanna hear," Elizabeth recounted to TODAY.

What's worse, Elizabeth starting taking some of what they were saying to heart.  "I felt like all my self-confidence was ripped out.  And people telling you you're not pretty, it just makes you, like, looking the mirror and tell yourself you're not pretty and I stopped eating when they told me I was fat."

The bullying just got worse: During a phone call, one of Scott and Tyler's friends got on the line with Elizabeth. 

"That girl got on the phone and told me that I should kill myself, that no one liked me, and that the world would be such a better place without me being in it.  And then they all laughed.  I just broke down and I started crying. When someone tells you that, you automatically think all those bad thoughts. I thought horrible things," recalled Elizabeth.

Scott called Eliza back and apologized. She told him she never wanted to speak to him again.

"She couldn't sleep. You know, just self-doubt, questions about herself:  You know, 'Am I too fat?' stuff that just -- it's hard to hear because she's my child and I think she's absolutely gorgeous," recalled Elizabeth's father Donald, tearing up himself.

Several months passed until a car ride changed Scott and Tyler's outlook.

"We were listening to the radio and they were talking about the suicide of a boy named Jamey Rodemeyer," said Tyler.  "We just got into a really long discussion about what if that would have happened to somebody that we know: the person that we sit next to in English class, the person who we talk to every day at lunch?"

"And the Eliza situation clicked when I heard that," added Scott.

Last fall, Rodemeyer committed suicide after excessive online bullying.  His death made national news since the boy had participated in the "It Gets Better" campaign, designed to encourage LGBT youth. 

His mother, Tracy, told TODAY, "We are proud and happy every time we hear that Jamey has inspired someone to make a difference.  In the end, that is all he wanted. He wanted for people to treat other with respect and to be accepting of their differences whether it is race, color, ethnicity, disabilities, sexual orientation or even pure appearance. His voice and message has traveled the world and is still going strong over a year later."

After their car ride, Scott and Tyler decided make bullying the focus a of school project.  The result: a powerful video featuring their high school classmates.

Tyler said at first, they weren't sure what would happen with the video.  "We planned an assembly for our school and we were just gonna show it to our school and add a few comments about bullying and how it can be prevented. "

Scott added: "And during the assembly that some people came up to us and was like, 'Wow, you guys -- that video actually made me feel sick to my stomach because I feel so guilty.'  So it's touched a lot of people."

The young men entered the video in the Great American No Bull Challenge and afterwards were asked to be spokespeople for the organization. They accepted, but kept their history with Elizabeth a secret. 

Elizabeth and her father Donald started to see local news coverage of the boys' work.  Donald wanted to blow the whistle on them, but Elizabeth felt like if they were helping kids, she didn’t want to stop their efforts.

Tyler admits, "I was ashamed of my past, but then I realized that this could be a positive experience for others who might be bullying somebody and then think, if something were to happen you'd have to live with that guilt for the rest of your life."

Over the Labor Day Weekend, before TODAY contacted them for this story, Scott and Tyler saw Elizabeth at a local fair and offered their apologies. 

Scott told TODAY, "We're not the same people we were two years ago.  We're inspiring people.  We want to help people now.  And we don't want to be the bystander and the bully. We don't want to be like that. And I'm sure if a situation like this was happening we would stand up and help others."

Tyler's perspective has changed as well.  "It's wrong, how you're putting other people down to lift yourself up. And we found that lifting people up lifts us up even more than putting people down."

Elizabeth accepted their apologies. "I did forgive them,  I wanna believe in my heart that they've changed, that they want to be better people and that they're not gonna do that to anyone else," she said. 

Scott also wanted Elizabeth's father to know that they were sorry for what they had put his daughter through.  "We were stupid, we were immature, we were just a group of friends that unfortunately had to attack Eliza to make each other laugh. And it wasn't right and my views have totally changed."

Donald appreciates the fact that boys are being honest now, "I think that this will add to their program, by admitting it.  I think it would be fantastic."

Elizabeth has put the incident behind her and was recently nominated to her school's homecoming court. She credits her father with helping her to move forward. 

"My dad tried to be there for me and tell me, like, 'You're gonna get through this.’  And I have.  That is just a mountain that I've climbed, and I'm on top of the world now.  Pretty much nothing can bring me down now."

Meredith Reis is a TODAY show producer.

More resources for kids, parents and teachers can be found at StopBullying.gov

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