Christina Wagner was a happy, studious sixth grader in Edina, Minn., when the bullying began and her world started to change.
"When we entered middle school, I started to dress a little bit differently and it was really frowned upon," said Wagner. "In my city, there's a strict image people try to uphold. All of a sudden, the boys started using hate words against me in school and on social media, and I lost a lot of girlfriends, as a result."
Despite attempts to get school staff involved, the bullying continued for the next two years, Wagner said. As it did, her grades began to suffer, her mood changed and she became fearful of other students. A group of former girlfriends had decided to spread rumors about her, and the impact on her self-confidence was significant, she said.
"By the time I finished 8th grade," she added, "my entire reputation was shattered."
Noticing changes in her daughter, Wagner's mom Kathryn tried to intervene with a mother of one of the bullying girls.
"I explained to her what was going on, her daughter denied everything and she bought into it," she said. "She was completely unwilling to hear that her daughter had done anything wrong."
Ultimately, the decision was made for Wagner to transfer to another school, where she has since been able to regain a normal life.
The story is not an uncommon one. According to statistics from the PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center (PNBPC), every year 13 million American children are bullied, leading some to suffer from anxiety and depression, or feelings of fear and loneliness.
To help stem the tide, Wagner is now an advocate, publicly speaking out about her story. She's also spreading the word about how parents can get more involved. A new campaign partnership between The PNBPC and Green Giant will run throughout October to help kids find the courage to speak up. "Raise a Giant" is an open letter-writing initiative in which parents encourage children to stand up to bullying.
"What we find is that three out of four parents think their kids have been a witness to bullying but half aren't sure what to do," said Julie Hertzog, a nationally-recognized expert in bullying prevention and director of PNBPC. "So we're having parents think about what they want to say to kids, write them a letter and then have a face-to-face conversation about it."
Establishing an open dialogue can be key to prevention or stopping bullying in its tracks, Wagner said.
"In my personal experience, most kids feel like their parents there but they don't want to go to them," she said. "You want to appear strong and it's embarrassing [to admit to being bullied]. But if you have a constant reminder that they are there for you no matter what, you will be more likely to open up."
Hertzog's own commitment to bullying prevention is also personal.
"I'm the parent of a young man who was born with Down's syndrome," she said. "When he was entering kindergarten he already had a pacemaker and a feeding tube, and I was really concerned about him. So we put some steps into place into building community around him."
When middle school came years later, Hertzog again expected that dynamics would change. So she developed a program in conjunction with other parents educating kids about what they could do if they saw David in a bullying situation.
"Like 'Raise a Giant,' it was about parents supporting their kids to speak up when they saw something wrong," Hertzog said. "Just because someone is different, they don't deserve to be treated that way."