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Day after shooting, puppeteers address perils of bullying

“Sesame Street” has Bert and Ernie. The Assistance League of Las Vegas has Eddie and Claire.

The two puppets from its Kids on the Block program were on hand this fall for a visit from students of Joseph Thiriot Elementary to the nonprofit’s headquarters, 6446 W. Charleston Blvd. The students were treated to a puppet show on how to address bullying.

“When it was originally set up, they (targeted) older kids,” said Annette Heath, chairwoman for the program. “But then they found out that kids were growing up faster, and the fourth- and fifth-graders weren’t responding as well to puppets. So third-graders seemed to be the perfect age.”

Kids on the Block dates to the 1970s and found its way to Las Vegas in the mid-1990s. Last year, Kids on the Block visited 34 schools, covering various topics in addition to bullying.

“Technically, we’re supposed to do (the scripts) word for word,” Heath said. “… So, we usually address cyberbullying in the question-and-answer period, where we can ad lib.”

Adele Emmons and Adrienne Dabah served as the puppeteers, something they’ve done for nearly 10 years. They’ve addressed topics such as being obese, using a wheelchair, having parents announce a divorce and having a learning disability. The puppeteers never know how children will respond. Dabah recalled doing a skit on having diabetes and needing shots.

“I’ve been asked if I’m going to die. That sort of threw me off,” said Dabah.

Another time, her puppet was asked if it was contagious. These days, bullying is the hot topic.

“A lot of the scripts are kind of old and need to be updated,” Heath said. “Like, we need a script on terrorism.”

Her words spoke to the Oct. 1 shooting on the Strip. How would they handle a question if it came up?

“That guy was the ultimate bully, wasn’t he?” Dabah said of the shooter. “I’d say something like, ‘My family has talked about this, and we have a plan so we know where to meet up if we get separated.’ And then go on to say that if I’m at school, I know I’m safe because ‘we have adults who are watching over us.’”

The school bus arrived and about two dozen students, mostly third-graders, filed in and took seats.

The show began with the boy puppet out of breath. He’d just run from a bully who’d threatened to punch him. His friend Claire said telling an adult wasn’t being a tattletale, but, rather, reporting an event.

Eddie said he had a better idea: putting on his Superman Halloween costume, flying over to the bully’s house and beating him up. The children giggled.

The puppets suggested the kids should not be bystanders, but help the bully’s target by inviting him to play tetherball or some other activity to get him or her away from the tormentor.

Devonte Hayes, 9, said he has been “bullied a lot. They call me names and every time I draw something, they (criticize) it and say, ‘Your drawing is stupid.’ … When I tell an adult, they just say, ‘Don’t talk to that person.’”

He said the puppet program gave him other suggestions to try.

Aaleyah Ochoa, 10, said she felt confident she could handle being bullied.

“Girls bully a little, but not like boys. If they see a girl is doing something better than a boy, they’ll bully the boy,” she said.

School counselor Lynn Sutton said she gets about five complaints a week about bullying.

“It could be something like someone making fun of the way they look, or their weight,” she said. “Especially for girls, one of them might be going around telling other girls not to be friends with them. The clique kind of thing.”

She said the most effective tack is to get kids together to talk about the issue and do fun activities so they get to know one another better.

Bringing them to the Assistance League headquarters meant the children also got to “shop” for new clothes. Each received four shirts, two pairs of pants, a hygiene kit, underwear, a backpack and school supplies. They also got a new pair of sneakers.

“Of course, the boys are always like, ‘Do you have the Michael Jordan ones?’” said Laura Rehberger, public relations chairwoman for the Assistance League.

The clothing program is called Operation School Bell. Assistance League has 350 volunteers, and Operation School Bell is its biggest program. The Assistance League also operates a thrift shop, open to the public, at the site. Call 702-870-2002.

Contact Jan Hogan at jhogan@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2949.

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