MEDINA TWP. — When Jeff Burlingame, owner of Asian Martial Arts and a former law enforcement officer, heard about a 13-year-old boy who committed suicide because of being bullied, he knew he had to do something.
“It seems like there’s a lot of talk about it, but what’s being done?” he said. “What programs besides the 6 o’clock news will address it?”
So he created an anti-bully workshop, an ongoing series of free seminars geared toward helping children learn to deal with bullies. Held the last Saturday of every month, sessions are broken down by age, with 4- to 7-year-olds meeting at 9 a.m., 8- to 12-year-olds at 10 and a group for teenagers 13 and older at 11 at Asian Martial Arts, 3839 Pearl Road, in the Fenn Crossings plaza.
“I think people are more aware of bullying problems now,” said Medina resident Brian Robbins as he watched his children, Isaac, 7, and Megan, 4, take off their shoes and scamper to sit in a semicircle around Burlingame in the open training hall.
Dan Zereski of Brunswick brought his son, Tyler, 7, to the class.
“Kids can be cruel, and it’s good for them to learn how to deal with that, how to respond,” Zereski said, adding that Tyler started studying karate about 2½ months ago.
“I think that karate builds confidence, and that in turn will help anyone in being able to deal with being bullied,” Zereski said.
“It’s another tool they can use, and I think this class is a good offset to karate, because you don’t want them to use it to bully someone else.”
Using online resources, Burlingame discovered that about 30 percent of teen suicides appear to stem from bullying. According to a 2007 study by the National Institute of Mental Health, it’s considered to be the third leading cause of death in the 15 to 24 age group. Although the site doesn’t list bullying as a possible factor, other articles he found detailed what researchers at Yale School of Medicine reported after reviewing 37 studies that point to a link between children being bullied and suicidal thoughts.
Bullies themselves can be at risk, Burlingame said, so the class presents two sides of the coin — how to defend yourself against bullies and how to not be a bully.
“Kids need to know bullying can have very serious repercussions. I hope these sessions will keep some kids from bullying and keep some from being victimized,” he said.
Burlingame is no stranger to being on the receiving end of bully ridicule as a teen, and he tells his own tale of peer persecution as part of the seminar.
“But our generation dealt with it differently,” he said, adjusting the colorful “anti-bully” wristband he wears as part of the message he brings. “I think there’s more going on now, greater peer pressure. It keeps piling on until it reaches a breaking point, and unless a child knows how to deflect it or deal with it, it can end in violence one way or the other. We need to get the word out that it’s OK to say no to bullies.”
Colin Grice, 5, who will soon enter kindergarten, quietly slipped into his place in the semicircle. His mother, Cindy Grice, who also serves as principal at Ralph E. Waite Elementary School in Montville Township, said she’s discussed bullying with him.
“Martial arts in general is good for building confidence and self-esteem,” she said, watching as Burlingame demonstrated a simple technique to deflect unwanted physical contact. “Colin is very shy, and this has been good for him.”
She nodded at Burlingame as two of the children practiced breaking free of someone who grabbed their wrists.
Burlingame “came to family fun night at Waite … and we’re thinking about how to incorporate something like this (anti-bullying program) in the classroom,” she said.
In each session, Burlingame questions the kids about situations they’ve faced, how their antagonists made them feel bad, if they experienced cyber bullying or if they were physically or verbally assaulted. He urged them to go to their parents, a teacher or another adult they trust.
“Your parents might not have all the answers,” he said, “but they will be there to support you and keep you safe.”
Some suggestions he offered to counter a bully’s tactics included laughing off verbal taunts — “that takes away a bully’s enjoyment of making you feel bad” — and the importance of using confident body language.
“How you act, how you carry yourself when you walk is important,” Burlingame said. “A bully is less likely to pick on you if you don’t act timid.”
Each session closed with an opportunity for parents to chat with Burlingame and ask questions.
“We all have the potential to do great things,” Burlingame said. “A bully tries to take that away from you. Every week will be a little different because other children will be here to tell their stories, which gives us a chance to show more ways to handle situations. This class is open to everyone. You don’t have to be a martial arts student to attend.”
Burlingame also takes his show on the road to educate others with a presentation about the effects bullying can have. For more information, call (330) 721-9695.
Contact Judy A. Totts at firstname.lastname@example.org.