Twenty-five years after a bullet to the head nearly killed him, former bully Steven Bernard still bears the scars, physical and emotional, of that cold day in 1988 at Bristol High School.
He drags his left leg when he walks. His left arm hangs lifeless at his side. And his head still shows the path the bullet took after the young man who’d been bullied had finally had enough of it all and decided to take revenge.
“If anyone wants to feel the bullet in my head you can. It’ll cost you a dollar though,” Mr. Bernard recently joked to a group of eighth graders at Kickemuit Middle School, where he traveled to talk about the harmful effects of bullying. The truth, though, isn’t funny.
In 1988, Mr. Bernard was the big man on campus at Bristol High School, now Mt. Hope High School. He had lots of friends and was a star athlete who excelled in baseball, football and basketball. He was only a sophomore, but already he showed promise that he’d be a candidate for athletic scholarships.
“My dream was to play football in college,” he said.
But he was also a bully, and Vincent Isabelle, 15, was his regular victim. Throughout the school year, Mr. Bernard picked on Vinny. He shoved him into lockers, called him derogatory names, made his life miserable. Mr. Bernard’s friends encouraged the ridicule, egging him on and laughing.
Vinny “and I just didn’t get along. He was an outcast. I was the popular jock. I bullied him, but back then it wasn’t called that.”
On Feb. 25, 1988, everything changed. That day, Vinny challenged Mr. Bernard to a fight after lunch in the courtyard. Anticipating the fight, the area filled with students.
“I told him it wouldn’t take long and he could take the first shot,” Mr. Bernard said, who now recognizes the significance of the words he chose.
“I didn’t say ‘take the first punch. I said take the first shot’,” he said.
Vinny pulled a .22 caliber handgun from his jean jacket pocket, pointed it at Mr. Bernard’s forehead and pulled the trigger.
“I remember looking down the barrel. I thought it was a squirt gun,” he said. Then he remembers lying on the ground, feeling warm blood run down his face.
It took Mr. Bernard six months to re-learn how to speak, walk and talk, but he’s never been the same. His left side is partially paralyzed and he is permanently disabled. Vinny spent the next three years in juvenile prison and moved away from the area after his release at age 18.
“As I look back, I was a nice kid. I was just caught up in a wrong situation. Bullies want power and control,” he said. “It made me feel good.”
Today, Mr. Bernard helps coach girl’s basketball at Barrington Middle School, and travels to schools to spread his anti-bullying message. Although his presentation begins with a 20-minute video of footage and 911 recordings of the school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, his message is not about stricter gun laws or banning firearms. It’s about the danger of remaining silent.
“My message is ‘silence hurts.’ What we need to do is get kids talking. We teach violence right from the beginning. Kids don’t know how to communicate. They walk around with headphones on or are texting. It ends with you.”
Mr. Bernard asked the eighth graders seated inside the auditorium to stand if they had ever seen acts of bullying, been a victim of bullying or were themselves a bully. Everyone in the group stood.
Students John Rodrigues and Rebeccah Trefethen said later that a lot of what he said was familiar to them. John said much of what he sees is “verbal bullying” like name calling. Rebeccah has seen examples in the cafeteria when students will “physically move a lunch table away” from another student.
However, students at Kickemuit also have resources Vinny didn’t have a quarter century ago. They are encouraged to speak with a guidance counselor or a favorite teacher if they want to report bullying or other unhealthy behaviors they see or are victims of. In addition, there are ‘bully boxes’ where students can submit names and activities they witness, as well as closed circuit monitors that can be reviewed to observe such behavior in the schools. None of those things existed in Mr. Bernard’s day.
“Back then it was teasing. Teachers saw it and didn’t say anything. That morning (Vinny) was showing the gun around and three students and three teachers saw it and didn’t say anything.”
Looking back, Mr. Bernard is sorry for his actions, and said he hopes students learn to make healthy choices when dealing with their peers,whether they’re being bullied or are the aggressors.
“What I did was wrong, but pulling the trigger was cowardly,” Mr. Bernard said. “Life is about choices, chances and consequences. If you see bullying tell an adult. Then it’s off your back and it’s in the hands of an adult.”
As for Vinny?
“If I saw him now and he said he was sorry, I’d tell him it was OK. I would shake his hand and be friends.”
Likewise, Mr. Bernard said he’d also offer an apology for bullying Vinny into the decision that changed two lives forever.