Spencer Agren still remembers the anonymous emails that appeared in his in-box when he was a middle school student.
The messages made hurtful quips about the now 17-year-old's looks, personality and interests.
Never one to dwell on the negative, the senior at Gunnison Valley High School ignored the comments and changed his email address.
But the experience stuck with him, especially during the month he spent this year producing a video about cyber-bullying. Agren's video is one of 15 selected for the 2012 Great American NO BULL Challenge and the NO BULL Teen Video Awards" that will be held in California this summer.
The contest, sponsored by a San Francisco-based nonprofit, encouraged students across the country to make short films that discourage cyberbullying in social media.
"They attempted to bring my self-esteem down by making rude comments. They wouldn't leave me alone," Agren recalled of his personal bullying experience. "I didn't take it to heart â¦ but not everyone has a personality that can handle that."
Agren's video includes schoolyard shots of children on swings and students walking down hallways. Some students are glancing at cell phone messages, such as "idiot" and "you should find someone who actually likes you."
The video, titled "One Text," asks viewers to contemplate a simple question: "How much influence can just one positive text have?"
"What if we used our technology to help one another instead of to break each other down?" Agren asks in the five-minute video he narrates, available at http://bit.ly/KacXPd. "What if somebody stood up and took the time to talk?"
Agren challenges his audience to consider the impact of sending a compliment instead of a catty remark to friends.
He said he drew inspiration from listening to music as ideas for film scenes flashed through his mind. Agren's classmates at Gunnison Valley High were eager to help with the project and volunteered to be actors in the video, which he shot with his mom's Sony Handycam Camcorder. Others in the 5,000-person town of Gunnison donated lights, costumes or other props when needed.
"Monumentous support came through," said Agren. "I had a group of class members who would follow me around and ask me when the next shoot was. Everybody asked me how they could help."
Agren's video advanced to the finals after the public initially voted on their favorite videos at the No Bull Challenge's website, where 100 of about 300 submitted videos were selected and sent to a panel of judges. Agren's video was then named one of 15 finalists, said Sarah Flores, a spokeswoman for the No Bull Challenge.
She called Agren's video "very powerful" and "very inspiring."
"He talks about how we could change the world with one text if we could use it for good instead of for bad. It's very uplifting," said Flores.
Agren's work has earned him an all-expenses paid trip to San Francisco for a July 21 awards ceremony where eight final winners will be announced. Up for grabs are numerous prizes, including a $10,000 video production deal, scholarships, laptops, iPads, video cameras and a trip to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City next winter, Flores said.
Agren's success wasn't a surprise to classmates and teachers at Gunnison Valley High, said Principal Kent Larsen. Agren is not only bright but compassionate, Larsen said.
"This is really him. This is the way he is," said Larsen, of Agren's comments in the video which call on students to be accepting of one another. "I think he really means it about the positive texts. I'm really sure he believes that's the way it should be."
Larsen said in the past year Agren has connected with a high-functioning autistic student, a friendship that allowed the other student to blossom in the school environment. Agren also takes the time to get to know other special-needs students at the school and is often spotted helping a student with Down's syndrome, the principal said.
Agren's contest submission coincides with an ongoing national conversation about bullying. The documentary "Bully," which examines how students treat peers at school, debuted this spring. The film prompted the national PTA to launch a "connect for respect" initiative, encouraging local organizations to discuss bullying in their own communities and potential solutions.
Several recent cases of bullying across the country that culminated in teen suicides have not only focused attention on the issue but spawned a new word "bullycide." One of those teens, 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, took his life in New York last year after enduring months of taunting from classmates about his sexuality. Rodemeyer's 16-year-old sister will serve as one of the judges for the video awards in July.
Agren hopes his video is the start of a career creating socially conscious films. He graduated on Thursday and will celebrate his 18th birthday on Friday. He plans to attend Brigham Young University in the fall, where he wants to study film.
"From there, one of my lifelong goals is to be on a silver screen somewhere and to produce a film of my own," Agren said. "I want to change something, somewhere."
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Utahn a finalist in video contest
Gunnison student Spencer Agren's video, "One Text," is a finalist in the NO BULL Teen Video Awards. Judges who will screen the films before the July 21 awards ceremony include: Mehmet Oz and his wife, Lisa; Lee Hirsch, director of the film "Bully"; Ann Shoket, editor-in chief of Seventeen magazine; Deborah Liebling, president of Red Hour Films; Alyssa Rodemeyer, 16-year-old sister of bullying victim Jamey Rodemeyer; and Teri Schroder, CEO of iSafe. Watch Agren's video at http://bit.ly/KacXPd.
The National PTA, which has launched an initiative encouraging local PTAs to discuss bullying and potential solutions, cites these statistics on its website:
About 32 percent of all students reported being bullied at school, according to a 2008 study by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Of those students, 79 percent reported being bullied inside the school building and 23 percent on school grounds; 4 percent reported being cyberbullied.
Studies have shown no major differences between the number of girls and boys bullied or the number of students bullied at private and public schools.
Bullied students were more likely to take a weapon to school for protection; to become involved in a physical fight; to receive lower grades; and suffer mental health problems.
What to do if your child is bullied
Don't ignore it • Encourage your child to report the incidents to teachers or school administrators. If the situation does not improve, you may need to call administrators yourself.
Stay calm • It is upsetting to hear about your child being bullied at school. Do not encourage your child to resort to verbal or physical retaliation.
Document the bullying • If it persists, keep a log of incidents so school administrators understand the frequency of events.
Seek help • See if school administrators can provide a policy on bullying, which may outline consequences for instigators.
Source • http://www.pta.org