"Cool kids don't bully."
That's the message Gov. Nikki Haley brought to Indian Land Middle School, where she stopped Monday to promote October as Bully Prevention Month.
"We have all seen someone" bullied for the way they dress, how they talk or their grades, Haley said to about 80 students, teachers and administrators.
It's a message that resonated with seventh-grader Abigail Waldo, who said, "Even the small things can make a difference in someone else's life."
"You never know what someone else has been going through, and maybe that one day when you're like, 'Man, you should have done this with your shirt instead of this,' that could have really set it off," she said.
Haley joined in signing the school's Purple Hands Pledge, "to use our hands for good actions, not for hurting others," said Principal David McDonald.
The pledge is the school's own effort to "stamp out bullying," McDonald said.
Haley said she's focusing on middle schools because that's "where they really start to notice what they look like, what they act like, how they treat others."
It's more difficult to address problem behaviors once students are in high school, she said.
Haley has been touring the state promoting her legislative agenda for next year. When asked if her agenda would include anything related to helping schools get resources to deal with bullying, she said the problem is "cultural," and a solution can't be "mandated" through legislative action.
How to address it is "something that must be taught."
Teaching children respect toward one another is key, she said.
Haley showed a video in which "cool" South Carolinians including University of South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier and Miss Teen USA spoke out against bullying. Some told stories of how they'd been bullied too.
Then, she urged children to be leaders and say to bullying: "That's not cool, we're not going to do that."
"A leader is someone that when they see their friends making fun of other people, they actually step up and say, 'We don't need to do that.'
"A follower is someone who stays quiet and lets it happen," she said. "I know we've got leaders in this room today."
Haley challenged students to make amends with someone who's been bullied.
"A leader goes to someone who's been bullied and says, 'I'm sorry that happened to you,'" she said.
Haley shared her own story of being bullied as a child on the playground.
"I was bullied because they wanted to know whether I was black or I was white," she said.
Playing kickball one day, Haley asked the others, "'Are y'all ready to play?' And they said, 'We are, but you're not.'"
The children wouldn't let her play until she told them whether she was black or white, she said.
"And I didn't know. I was brown," she said, recalling how it made her feel. "I didn't know what that made me."
She had a message for bullied children, too: "You need to fight back, not fight back with your fists, but you fight back by telling someone and saying you are not going to take it anymore."
Students pose questions
Haley talked for about 15 minutes before opening up the floor for questions.
Students lined up to ask her a range of questions, from what a typical day is like for her, to how schools that are struggling financially can get help.
"The main thing we can do is make sure the money goes to the right place," she said.
"There's not as much money to spend on education as there used to be" so legislators must "make sure the dollars go to the teachers, students and technology in the classroom."
Eighth-graders Travis Floyd and Dalen Byerley were impressed with the governor stopping by their school instead of others.
"Middle school students are often forgotten about" when education decisions are made, said Travis, who asked Haley what she would do to prevent them from being left out.
Teaching them "the power of your voice," was her answer. "Even though you can't vote," she said, "you can still contact (lawmakers) and tell them what you care about."
Using the state Legislature's vote on whether students would have to make up snow days last year, Haley said "that's one of those times" when students should contact their leaders. They may not like the outcome, but they should still call or email with their thoughts.
Dalen, the eighth-grader who asked a question about education, said afterward, "We're just focusing on jobs instead of education in the schools.
"We should start focusing on that more because we are going to be up there one day," he said, pointing to the stage.
As Haley signed autographs for all students who attended the assembly, a group of girls sat on the bleachers waiting. They were excited to have a female governor.
"It empowers us girls to move forward in life and not just think that men do everything," said seventh-grader Brianna White.
Stop at Sun City
After her school visit, Haley ate lunch at Sun City Carolina Lakes, an active adult retirement community south of Indian Land Middle School on U.S. 521.
To about 80 members of the Sun City community and local Republican Party, Haley lauded the state's economic development successes and pushed government restructuring initiatives stalled in the state Senate, such as creating a department of administration to merge government office functions.
Haley tried to call back legislators to vote on her initiatives, but was successfully sued by Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston.
The fire alarm was tripped twice, disrupting Haley's talk, but everyone stayed in their seats.
Joking, Haley turned to state Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, and said, "You know senator, I think Sen. McConnell did that."
VIDEO: Haley at Indian Land Middle