A High School Homecoming ‘Like Carrie with a Happy Ending’

When high school bullies pulled a cruel practical joke on an unpopular classmate, the entire town got involved and rallied around the would-be victim in support

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Humans can be unspeakably cruel — and immeasurably kind. The residents of the small Michigan farm town of West Branch displayed both tendencies recently when students at the local high school voted a quirky, unpopular sophomore girl to the homecoming court as a vicious joke. Turns out, though, the joke is on the bullies, because the rest of West Branch quickly rallied around the girl in a show of unexpected and overwhelming public support.

Local businesses will buy her dinner, take her professional photo, give her salon treatment for her hair and nails, and outfit her in gown, shoes and a tiara reported the Detroit News. A Facebook page that was created to support the teen, 16-year-old Whitney Kropp, went viral — an inspiring case of social media being used as a vehicle for the better angels of our nature, not the bullies.

When Kropp first heard she was elected to represent her class at the homecoming game on Friday, she was shocked but happy — until she learned the ugly truth about her selection. The popular kids thought it would be funny if an outcast won the popularity contest, and then the other sophomore rep, a popular football player, withdrew. Kropp thought it was because he “never goes to homecoming,” but as another student told Kropp, “That’s not what he told everybody.”

(MORE: How Not to Raise a Bully: The Early Roots of Empathy)

Wrote Francis X. Donnelly in the News:

Word of the prank quickly spread through this small town, whose water tower is a yellow smiley face.

Kropp’s sister told her friends, who told their parents, who told their friends.

The Facebook support page was created, quickly drawing hundreds of messages of encouragement. The page has more likes (more than 3,500) than the town has people (2,100).

A bank account was opened for Kropp’s homecoming expenses but wasn’t needed. So many businesses donated services that everything was covered.

Kropp’s experience shows that when a community rallies around a victim of bullying, it’s not the victim who winds up looking ridiculous. When teens with more social power harass those with less, it’s the bullies who lose social status when they’re exposed — but only if the adults in the community do what West Branch’s parents and businesses did, and send a strong message that such malice will not be tolerated.

Many people think that bullying is impossible to fight, that it’s part of human nature and that the only real solution is for victims to toughen up and grow up.  But research now shows two things clearly: first, that bullying can cause lasting psychological harm, leading to or exacerbating depression and other mental illnesses because of the stress it creates. And second, that schools and communities that create a climate where bullying is actively fought by adults, rather than tacitly accepted at every instance, can actually reduce both the prevalence of bullying and the damage it does.

Think about what it might have been like for Kropp if her town hadn’t rallied around her, promising to pack the stands on Friday wearing “Team Whitney” shirts, holding up posters and cheering for her in her new red dress. As Donnelly concludes: “It’s like ‘Carrie’ with a happy ending.”

Check out the whole story in the Detroit News here — it’s a great read.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.