Solutions in Education

Learning to Stop Bullying Before it Hurts Education


By Lillian Mongeau

Bullying hurts kids’ performance in school, but schools have trouble responding. Victims fear shame and retaliation so they don’t report, and some institutions fail to respond to reports for fear of besmirching their reputations. A Santa Cruz group called Kidpower plans to equip kids with effective social responses as well as some physical ones.

Photos: Lillian Mongeau

KidPower instructors say a bully is anybody who uses words or actions to belittle victims. That includes all forms of sexual harassment. At a class for teens on a recent Sunday, a dozen girls practice dealing with men who toss out cat-calls and even get up to block the girls’ way.

“ Heeey,” a male coach purrs.

“Get ready,” says Irene Van der Zande, an instructor who is also the founder of Kidpower.

Stop right there,” the girl responds.

Oh, c’mon, you totally look like somebody I know,” says the male coach.

“Turn around and leave,” Van der Zande says.

Turn around and leave,” the girl repeats with force. Then she walks past the man. Once she’s past, Van der Zande coaches her to glance behind her to make sure the man isn’t following.

The scene takes place in a sun-lit classroom at the Aptos Montessori School, not on an abandoned city street. It’s hard for some of the girls not to grin and giggle as they practice in front of their friends. Van der Zande tells the girls it’s important to also practice being serious.

Padded instructor Ryan Holmes says he hopes the role he plays helps the girls stay safe in a potential real-life situation.

“Women are socialized to smile when we set boundaries,” she says. “If you have trouble here, don’t worry about it.” She assigned the girls homework: “practice looking in the mirror until you can say, ‘Stop right there,’ without smiling.”

Even though they’re only 14, students Hannah and Isabella say they’ve already had guys cat-call them. Isabella says the class is turning out to be more useful than she’d expected when her mother made her sign up.

Having a Response Ready

“I definitely think about it on my own on the street,” Isabella says. “So it’s nice to know what to do besides what just pops in your head randomly.”

KidPower offers classes in “knowing what to do” for kids from toddlers to teens. They teach at schools and by request for private groups, like these girls, who know each other from bible study. In addition to teaching the girls how to respond verbally to unwanted attention, the instructors teach basic self-defense moves. The girls learn to use their feet and knees and elbows to fend off attackers. They practice on their male instructors who are now covered in thick padding. The girls even practice poking their instructors in the eyes and grabbing and twisting their, well, Isabella will explain it:

“We have to grab a little rubber toy he stuck down his pants and grab it and squeeze it to protect ourselves,” Isabella says.

She says she’s not comfortable doing it but that it’s probably an important thing to know how to do.

For his part, padded instructor Ryan Holmes says he hopes the role he plays helps the girls stay safe in a potential real-life situation.

“Unfortunately, it’s more realistic that men are the type that are causing fights,” he says.

A Voice Can Make a Big Difference

Even after an hour of getting beat up in the name of safety though, Holmes says he always uses his voice before his fists. He put that into action recently when he came upon a fist-fight in downtown Santa Cruz.

“I was about 30 feet away and I yelled about as loud as I’ve ever heard myself yell,” Holmes says. “I said, ‘Get off him now.’ And the man that was attacking the other man jumped off the guy and staggered back like he’d been hit and he got on his bike and he rode away.”

The lesson, Holmes says, is that size doesn’t matter when saying the right thing has the power to stop an attack.

Kidpower website.

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