November 2, 2013

School kicks off ostracism series

Documentary depicts results of social rejection.

By Amie Sites Pharos-Tribune

---- — DELPHI — Community leaders in Carroll County gathered in Delphi Wednesday night for a special showing of the documentary “REJECT” — and the beginnings of what could be a statewide bullying-awareness project.

The feature-length documentary directed and produced by Ruth Thomas-Suh takes a look at the science of social rejection. The documentary, which has not been widely released, is being used to start a conversation on bullying and ostracism in a pilot program in Carroll County.

Wednesday’s was the first public community forum screening of “REJECT.”

“I’m from New York City, but don’t hold that against me,” Thomas-Suh said, laughing. “It was a labor of love and we care deeply about this subject.”

The pilot program consists of three forums on ostracism, or exclusion, and is sponsored by Purdue Extension. The first forum on Wednesday showed the documentary and allowed questions for the director and feedback on the film.

“REJECT” begins with several news broadcasts of school shootings resulting in casualties. It then goes further to show the people behind the shootings who reported being bullied and rejected.

The goal of the documentary is to contribute to a national conversation. The community forum is meant to make a difference in Carroll County and create a program that could be duplicated across Indiana.

“I hope this information becomes part of the national conversation on mental health and violence,” Thomas-Suh said.

Chris Lagoni, superintendent of Carroll Consolidated School Corporation, said when he looked around the room he saw teachers, principals and superintendents of two schools and several community leaders.

“We’re here because we want there to be a conversation and we’re ready to make a difference,” Lagoni said.

The documentary shows two stories that take different paths. One is Eric Mohat, a 17-year-old from Ohio who was bullied at school and eventually committed suicide. His parents try to figure out what led Eric to suicide. Another story follows Justin, a 5-year-old who was labeled a bully at school and eventually kicked out of kindergarten. In a different kindergarten class with a different teacher, Justin felt accepted, got along with others and excelled.

The documentary includes commentary by experts in education, medicine, juvenile justice and psychology. “REJECT” also features ostracism expert Kipling Williams, a Purdue University professor, and his study on ostracism.

Researchers in the film discuss findings that images of the brain of someone in physical pain or someone being socially rejected look similar. This was shown in the movie through a ball-tossing game and brain image in a magnetic resonance imaging. Through an MRI, the same parts of the brain lit up when someone was in pain and when someone felt rejected.

The film also studies acceptance in the school system and how it influences physical and mental health and self-esteem. It also shows the importance of having at least one friend.

“My father would say, help a person connect with at least one other person,” Thomas-Suh. “You only need one friend to make a difference.”

Tomas-Suh’s father, Dr. Herbert E. Thomas, author of the book “The Shame Response to Rejection,” worked as a resident psychiatrist for 30 years in a maximum-security prison and witnessed a connection between the experience of rejection and physical pain and how it could lead to acts of violence. The documentary was inspired by his work.

Overall, the film looks at the roots of bullying and how it leads to physical pain, which can result in violence. The film’s goal is to raise public awareness of potentially violent consequences of rejection from bullying and other types of social rejection.

At the end of the film, community leaders including parents, teachers, administrators, police officers and coaches were asked to respond to the film and discuss whether the program should be taken statewide.

Thomas-Suh hopes the documentary will be widely available by mid-2014.

“This is tough material, but it’s the right time for this conversation,” Tomas-Suh said. “We could each use this movie to make a difference in our one-to-one relationships.”

The second session will feature Kip Williams discussing his research Wednesday at Carroll Jr.-Sr. High School. The third session will be Nov. 13 at the Wabash and Erie Canal center, Delphi, and will allow for discussion on actions that individuals and organizations can take. There will be a light supper at 6 p.m. and each program will be 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Amie Sites is a staff reporter at the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at 574-732-5117 or Follow her: @PharosAES.