Anthony Ianni, a Michigan State basketball player, talks to the students at Anderson Middle School in Berkley about autism. Ianni has autism and says he was the victim of bullying as a kid. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)
Berkley — Anthony Ianni stuck his tongue on a frozen pole, on a dare, to the great delight of bullies in his elementary school.
He also was incessantly taunted by another classmate, who called him the “Jolly Green Giant” in front of others, because Ianni, now 24, stood 6 feet tall in the sixth grade.
Ianni also has autism. There is no cure for autism spectrum disorders, which cause people to handle information in their brain differently than others. They affect 1 in 88 children in the U.S., and 1 in 54 boys, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
The former Michigan State basketball player, determined to end bullying and spread awareness about autism, visited Anderson Middle School Wednesday as part of his “Relentless Tour” of 659 middle schools across the state. He also is representing the Autism Alliance of Michigan.
“People doubted me every day of my life,” said Ianni. “They told me I’d never graduate from high school, much less college. Every time somebody tried to prove me wrong, it was like throwing gasoline on my fire.”
Not only did he graduate from Michigan State University, Ianni, who now stands 6 feet, 6 inches, proudly showed off his 2011-12 Big Ten Championship ring to the 600 students gathered in the gym.
Ianni said he’s weary of reading accounts of teens committing suicide or killing others because they were bullied.
“I made a list of the top 100 famous people who were bullied, and that list includes Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Tom Cruise, Sandra Bullock and Robert Pattison,” he said. “I guarantee everybody in this gym either has been bullied, knows somebody who was bullied or watched somebody being bullied.”
Anderson Principal Vince Gigliotti said the school participates in the No Place for Hate initiative, created by the Anti-Defamation League to recognize schools that work toward creating a school culture that promotes diversity, inclusion and kindness.
“Bullying behavior is unacceptable and is covered in our code of conduct under harassment,” he said. “We follow a step system of conduct that is first corrective in nature and that moves towards progressive discipline.”
Eighth-grader Adison Kaiser, 13, said Ianni’s message was inspirational.
“Bullying might push you down, but he proved that you can get back up,” she said.
At the end of his delivery, Ianni challenged the school to raise $750 for the Autism Alliance of Michigan. He said if they succeed, the school’s name will be printed on the side of an RV.
Gigliotti raised the challenge to $1,000 and presented a check for $275, collected from school dance admission fees, as a head start.