Galina Espinoza
October 28, 2002 12:00 PM

In the five weeks since she was crowned Miss America, Erika Harold has been traveling to different parts of the country, talking to students. But no matter where she goes, she hears similar tales of bullying—like the one about the overweight Illinois high schooler who was teased so mercilessly he dropped out and now studies online at home. “The stories,” says Harold, “are just heartbreaking.”

They resonate especially deeply with her. In 1993, as a freshman at University Laboratory High School in Urbana, Ill., Harold says she was “living under siege” after a group of about 15 classmates started an escalating campaign of sexual and emotional harassment against her and a close friend. It peaked, Harold says, with the group talking about “pooling their lunch money to buy a rifle to shoot me and my friend.” But even as the abuse snowballed, University High officials couldn’t make it stop. Terrified, Harold and her friend transferred to other schools.

But neither girl forgot. In 1995 Harold’s friend filed a lawsuit against the University of Illinois, which oversees University High, charging that the school had failed to provide her with a nonhostile school environment. A settlement (about which both parties are barred from speaking) was reached last month in the amount of $215,000. For her part, Harold, 22 (who filed an affidavit in the case), built her Miss America platform on the frightening experience and launched a crusade against youth violence. “I want kids to recognize,” she says, “that [bullying] is not simply an adolescent rite of passage they have to endure.”

The oldest of four children born to a white father and a black and Native American mother, Harold had always been an outgoing student, popular enough in eighth grade to be voted class president for the next year. But as ninth grade began, she says, “there was a different dynamic. Over the summer everything had changed.” She and her friend were taunted with epithets like “whore” and “slut.” In a typical incident, Harold recalls, “some boys walked by, wadded up their lunch trash and threw it at me.” Both girls also found death-threat notes on their desks.

In court papers, Harold’s friend linked her harassment to an allegation she made accusing a male classmate of sexually assaulting her. Aside from her friendship with the other girl, Harold didn’t know what provoked the attacks on her. Race was an unlikely motive; her friend is white. Convinced she must have done something, she started wearing sweatshirts and jeans “to be unnoticeable,” she says, and dropped most school activities.

All the while, says Harold, some teachers “would act as if [the abuse] wasn’t occurring,” even when students sang profane lyrics about her in class. “Erika became withdrawn and didn’t want to go to school anymore,” says her mother, Donna Tanner-Harold, 48, a college counselor.

After Erika finally confided in them, the Harolds raised their concerns with school officials. They got a curt dismissal (“The staff told us we were overreacting,” Tanner-Harold says) and an uptick in the terror. The Harold home was vandalized: Eggs were tossed through a bedroom window; the electricity was cut. “We were living in a state of fear,” says Harold’s father, Robert, 48, who sells satellite-dish networks. (The incidents were reported to police, but the perpetrators were never identified.)

Harold’s transfer to nearby Urbana High proved to be the right move. The vandalism ended, she became editor of her new school’s paper, and she joined the choir. At the University of Illinois, where she majored in political science, “I got along well with everybody,” she says. She thrived academically too. Next fall she plans to attend Harvard Law School.

Harold now believes asking why she was picked on misses the point. “I want to take the emphasis off what the victim does,” she says. “[Bullied] kids think, ‘Maybe I can buy a new outfit or take a new route home,’ but that doesn’t solve the problem.”

Even Harold’s tormenters may not fully understand what prompted their cruelties. “She dressed to get attention and was kind of shallow and naive,” says an unrepentant former male classmate who took part in the harassment (and wants to remain anonymous). “Some of the teasing definitely went over the line, but what Erika got was what’s pretty typical in high school.”

Not if Harold has her way. At each school she visits—she’s been invited to consult on harassment issues at University High—she urges students to stamp out bullying. “I want to make them aware,” she says, “how much power words can have.”

Galina Espinoza

Bob Meadows in New York City and Lorna Grisby in Chicago

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