M ore than 100 students sat in the Whitehall High School auditorium last Friday transfixed at what they saw on the screen in front of them.
For three minutes, they watched a video of Tom Murphy, a 6’1”, 230 pound bundle of kinetic energy and fast twitch muscles batter opponents with fists, knees and feet. When the video was over, Murphy a professional mixed martial arts fighter, emerged from the rear of the auditorium and made a statement that seemed to contradict everything the kids had just seen.
“I absolutely hate fighting, nothing breaks my heart more,” he said. “There is a difference between fighting and competition. What you saw on the screen was competition.”
And just like that the kids hung on Murphy’s every word for the next hour.
“We use his highlight reel and his presence—he has kind of star quality—as a sort of delicious irony. It’s one heck of a hook for the kids,” said Jason Spector, a South Glens Falls resident.
Spector and Murphy, friends, business partners and former collegiate wrestling teammates at SUNY Brockport are the faces behind a Sweethearts and Heroes, an organization that seeks to educate society about bullying.
Spector piloted the program in 2009 and three years later they have spoken to 25,000 kids across the state. Although they spoke in front of both middle and elementary school students on Friday (the elementary presentation was slightly different), their program is intended primarily for student in 6th, 7th and 8th grade where most of bullying occurs.
Their message and delivery may be unconventional, but Spector says it’s effective.
“I think our message is one of the best in the anti-bullying game,” he said. “It’s a data driven message that stimulates empathy and helps students develop an action plan.”
Their message is not how a kid can turn him or herself into a hulking power house that fears no bully, nor is about encouraging bullies to do good. Instead it’s aimed at the bystanders, the kid who sees what happens when adults aren’t around.
“It’s human nature to want to help but it’s also human nature not to do anything, not to get involved and that’s unfortunate,” Spector said. “A bystander is an accomplice unless they do something and become a sweetheart or a hero.”
According to Murphy, 85 percent of all bullying happens in front of other people.
“Bullies want an audience,” he said.
Murphy said there are five types of bullying: social alienation (the least common), indirect bullying, physical bullying and verbal bullying, by far the most common.
“Almost half of bullying comes out of our mouth. You know the old saying, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.’ Well, we got it wrong.”
A fifth type of bullying, cyber bullying, is also of particular concern, Murphy says, because in the past students had a “magical reset button” or the weekend to get away from bullies. Today, they don’t have that luxury.
Spector says the goal of their message is to help students develop an action plan for confronting and dealing with bullying. They call the plan the ABC’s.
“A” stands for getting away or avoiding the bullying.
“Some experts say you never want to avoid a bully, but this is a short term plan to give time for a long term solution,” Spector said.
“B” stands for buddy or the idea that every student needs someone in their life to let them know they care, a sweetheart or a hero.
And “C” stands for confrontation.
“Taken at face value, it sounds crude but it’s about standing up to the problem. Going to a teacher or a parent and telling someone about it,” Spector said.
Once a kid takes a stand, it become easier for others to become someone’s hero.
Spector, who work as a physical education teacher and wrestling coach at South Glens Falls, said he sees bullying all the time, but said that’s not the real issue..
“I really got sick of seeing kids and the way they treat each other and decided I wanted to make a change in how kids treat other kids,” he said. “I don’t think bullying is the reason anyone takes their life. The common theme was an absence of sweethearts and heroes in their lives.
I don’t believe we have a bullying problem but an absence of sweethearts and heroes.”