TAMPA — Quinton Aaron is a massive man.
While his prodigious size helped him land a starring role in the 2009 Academy Award-winning film, “The Blind Side,” in which he portrayed football player Michael Oher, it also made him an easy target for childhood bullies.
On Monday night, the burly, 6-foot-8-inch Aaron, 31, spoke of those past experiences during an anti-bullying town hall meeting moderated by Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman at Blake High School. More than 100 parents, students and school officials attended.
“I was always a skinny kid, kinda tall, had a big forehead and crooked teeth,” he said. “I got beat up and thrown down stairs, stuck with pencils. None of it stopped until I started talking up. Telling is the best defense you have. The people in school are there to protect you. It doesn’t matter if you’re called a tattle-tale or a snitch.
“Bullying won’t stop until you stand up for yourself and tell adults what’s going on.
These (bullies) don’t fear getting in trouble. As long as you don’t say anything, they won’t get in trouble.”
Once Aaron told his mother of his problems, he said she hounded school officials until the problems ceased.
“You have to speak up.” said Aaron, who in 2012 started a foundation in his name to raise awareness of bullying and childhood obesity.
Besides Aaron, panelists included Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins, law enforcement representatives and mental health professionals.
Bullying includes “situations where an individual takes aggression against another person, not just teasing. It’s repeated attempts to harm another person,” said Oliver Tom Massey, division director in the University of South Florida’s Department of Child and Family Studies.
“There’s cyber-bullying that doesn’t even occur face-to-face: texting, Facebook, making fun of people on the Internet,” Massey said. “At one time we thought (bullying) was a rite of passage that we all experienced, but that’s not true. Bullying can cause serious problems.”
Bullying also can be perpetrated physically, verbally, through social media and other ways. Victims may experience lower self-esteem, social isolation, anxiety and lower academic performance.
Some even commit suicide.
Eakins said that school officials work to ensure that “every classroom is conducive to learning, for students to feel safe, secure and cared for.”
“Whenever there’s a situation where that’s not the case, we need to take it very seriously,” he said. “We want students to stand up for other students and for students to know that the adults at school are their advocates.”
Former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor acknowledged that bullying has affected nearly everyone at some point.
“When I was young, I was about 6 feet tall in second grade and weighed about 50 pounds,” Castor said. “It’s all about not only what you do about it, but especially, the younger kids here in the front row: Don’t turn your head when you see someone being bullied.
“People need to learn how to settle disagreements. We have to respect the fact that we’re all different.”