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Racine's 'Bow Tie Biz Kid' Uses Fashion in the Fight Against Bullying

Teran Powell
Alex Hart-Upendo, standing in his home office, started his bow tie business over a year ago and has won many awards for his work.

Bullying continues to be a problem across the country. “It can cause physical damage that we see on the outside, but it can cause emotional distress which leads to things like depression, loneliness, anxiety," Clay Anton, of Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, explains.  However, there are many efforts underway to help curb bullying. Take, for example, eleven-year-old Alex Hart-Upendo from Racine.

He's is combating bullying through his business, Build-A-Bow.

Hart-Upendo says kids used to call him "nerd" and "dork" because he was smart. So he decided to make the term "nerd" fashionable, by designing and selling whimsical bow ties.

“I’ve been wearing bow ties since I was like 3 years old; it was a fashion statement to me. While I was being bullied, bow ties gave me confidence. It was a way I could speak, without speaking,” he says.

Credit Teran Powell
Alex sells a variety of ties, from furry types to ones made of wood.

Hart-Upendo is now known as the "Bow Tie Biz Kid" and he makes a bold statement with the bow ties, themselves. Some of his designs include pink and blue fur, known as the Cotton Candy Bow; others look like monarch butterflies. Another version is made of wood.

Although Hart-Upendo says he's no longer being bullied, that hasn’t stopped his efforts to make sure people know bullying is a problem.

“People need to be held accountable for their actions. People need to understand that words hurt," he says.

Hart-Upendo wrote a children's book about his experiences and recently backed an anti-bullying ordinance in Racine.

The city voted to move forward with the proposal, which prohibits people from bullying as well as retaliation against anyone who reports it. Offenders could face fines between $1 and $1,000, plus court costs.

"While I was being bullied, bow ties gave me confidence. It was a way I could speak, without speaking."

While Hart-Upendo was bullied with face-to-face name-calling, other kids are victimized online. Imagine logging into your Facebook account and seeing a flood of posts that say you don’t matter -- or posts that say everyone hates you, and you should kill yourself.

“Cyber-bullying is much more difficult than [face-to-face] bullying because it’s anonymous. It’s nonstop, its 24/7. Kids hide behind a digital device or their computer and it’s, it’s much more upsetting,” says Ross Ellis, the CEO of STOMP Out Bullying.

She defines bullying as repeated aggressive, intentional behavior, designed to control someone physically, mentally or emotionally, and points to a PEW research study that found kids check their social media a minimum of 100 times a day, so taunting texts and posts can have a big impact as well as long-term effects.

There can be a fine line between whether something is -- or isn't -- bullying, Jim Jordan, president of the Canadian organization, says. “Everyone thinks everything is bullying, even the parents. They continuously call the school saying, 'My kid’s coming home and saying I’m being bullied,' when actually it’s a conflict. It has nothing to do with it. Or they come home and say, 'Oh you know so and so is teasing me.' Well teasing’s not bullying, taunting is.”

Jordan’s organization travels to different schools to train teachers and students about bullying -- and the importance of the bystander when someone is being taunted. He says everyone has a role in helping to curb the behavior.

"Like a campfire needs oxygen, so does a bully. The way that we give the bullies the oxygen is by being complacent," Jordan says. He adds, we may never completely eradicate bullying, but we'll start to see results, when students, school administration and parents fight bullying collectively.