EXCLUSIVE: One Milwaukee school’s stance against bullying

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- How to stop this bullying epidemic that has resulted in depression and even suicide among students across the nation is one of the most puzzling and persistent problems facing American education. In Milwaukee, a unique and bold experiment may be the key to establishing a solution.

Robbie Moore is a transgendered student who attends Alliance School in Milwaukee.

The Alliance School is not a typical high school -- and it is what is not seen in the hallways and classrooms at Alliance that is important. None of the students at Alliance are bullied for being or looking different.

"Alliance means together. It means bringing people who are different together. I was teaching at one of the big high schools and I recognized there was a lot of bullying things going on. I tried to really address it within the school system, but it seemed like such a big thing going on and not a lot of people knew how to address it,"  school founder Tina Owen said.

With a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Owen opened a charter school with the explicit purpose of creating a safe haven for kids who have been bullied.

Now seven years old, the school is thriving with 175 students and eight teachers. It is one of the city's most racially diverse schools, and a community built on respect and responsibility.

"The idea is do no harm. No matter what -- if we disagree with each other, we don't harm each other," Owen said.

16-year-old Manny Johnson attends Alliance after he says he was severely bullied in his last school.

"Here it was like a big weight lifted off my shoulders like, I don't have to worry about this or looking like this or acting like that," Johnson said.

Owen said she struggled with the idea that a separate school may not be a solution to the problem of bullying.

"I didn't want the school to be an example of segregation. I didn't want us to just take kids away from a problem and leave the problem behind," Owen said.

For now, Alliance is a lifeline for students seeking a refuge from the endless onslaught of teasing and taunting.

"Unfortunately, the answer is, if you just change the way you dress, or if you change the way you walk or if you change the way you look, and that's just not possible for some students," Owen said.

Owen and the students at Alliance reject the idea that the school is simple a "gay school" While about half the students at the school are gay, others arrived at Alliance after being bullied for things like weight, race, clothes and even disabilities.

"The real meaning of this school is anti-bullying. It's to feel comfortable here," Johnson said.

15-year-old Sadie Miller came to Alliance as a middle-schooler after years of harassment over the way she looked and dressed. At Alliance, she says it all changed.

"This school is awesome. It's amazing and I'm going to use one of the biggest words I know: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!" Miller said.

Miller says her favorite subject is science fiction, but her most important lesson is one Alliance emphasizes: The Golden Rule.

"You treat 'em like they're supposed to be treated. Not like an outcast. Not like someone who is below you. You treat 'em, equally," Miller said.

As a charter school, Alliance must meet or beat the district on test scores and attendance, which it is doing. The graduation rate last year was 99%, some 30 points higher than MPS.

"The fact that we've been able to do it here shows that it works," Owen said.

It's a place where kids can be themselves and at least inside the school's walls, they can be treated like typical students.

"This is who I am. This is who I'm always going to be. I'm Robbert, I'm Asia, I'm Robbie. I'm Alliance,"

Owen says she and the Alliance students routinely speak at other schools, sharing the best practices they've learned and telling other schools what works to prevent bullying.

CLICK HERE for additional information on the Alliance School of Milwaukee.