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Worldwide attention for local filmmaker's "Unmake Bully" project

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Albany/HV: Worldwide attention for local filmmaker's "Unmake Bully" project
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It started as an experiment in the Scotia-Glenville School District, but now Mike Feurstein is taking his anti-bullying project across the country and around the globe. YNN's Geoff Redick reports.

AMSTERDAM, N.Y. -- An air of anticipation hangs over Mrs. Farrington's 5th grade class. It's a Monday, but not a normal one. As they file into their seats, a tall man smiles at them from the front of the room.

"Hello! I'm Mister Mike!"

It's the start of a speech he's made dozens of times. Just as many times, he has asked young students the question: what is bullying?

But Schenectady-based filmmaker Mike Feurstein hears a lot of different answers. Students offer "making fun of people," "pushing them down," or even discuss cyber-bullying that occurs over the internet.

Feurstein facilitates the conversation with ease, getting laughs at one moment, and then solemn, anonymous admissions of bullying the next. It's a skill that comes with experience.

"We've been in about sixteen schools this year," Feurstein said of his inventive program called, "How to Unmake a Bully."

"After starting two years ago with one school, the year after that we did fourteen and now we're at 16 to 18 this year, and it's not winter yet," he laughed.

The program with humble beginnings, it started when a principal asked Feurstein to film "a skit" at Scotia-Glenville, is now a world-wide phenomenon. Feurstein fields calls from domestic schools, as well as overseas.

"Through a YouTube posting, we got the attention of a teacher in Melbourne, Australia," he said. He visited there with a small crew earlier this fall, and carried out the same program he's become known for: a week-long visit to a school, meeting with several classes and discussing bullying.

But it's much more than discussion: Feurstein's program goes where no anti-bullying program has gone before. He takes stories of bullying told by children, and transforms them into movies and public service announcements, all produced from start-to-finish by the students themselves.

"We're trusting them with this gear," he said, multi-thousand dollar cameras, professional audio equipment and lights, "stuff they've never seen before, and they're a little afraid of using it."

But through the week of scriptwriting, storyboarding, and calling out "action!", each student gains empowerment to use the equipment confidently. And they also learn verbal and physical respect.

"We don't use the typical words that a lot of instructors do use. Instead of saying victim we say 'target.'" Feurstein rattles off the terms he now knows by heart. "Bystanders, upstanders, and negative bystanders (the different types of people who see and respond to bullying), and then we don't say bully, because we consider that a label. So we say 'person who bullies.' It's something that the person is doing; a behavior which we're saying needs to change."

Feurstein repeatedly deflects credit, and says how honored he is to help children grow and learn through the experience. School administrators, though, heap all the credit on Feurstein.

"The teachers that I've talked with in the 5th grade are just blown away by how strong the program is," said John Penman, Principal of Amsterdam's Marie Curie Institute, where Feurstein spent his December. "The kids are adapting and accepting it so well. He's got such a good understanding and grasp of what bullying is, and how to prevent it."

With no thoughts of slowing down, Feurstein is booking more programs across the country this spring. He's also hoping for expansion, but says he must find just the right people to continue his mission.

For now, though, Feurstein remains exclusively committed to "unmaking bullies," one good kid at a time.

"I know that it can only get better," Feurstein said. "I think it's only going to start helping more people, as we go on."

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