By Patti Okeefe
Special to the Register & Bee
When 4-year-old Avery lost his dad, Nikki Harris started to see some changes in her son.
“It was like when he lost his father figure he stopped opening up to people,” she said. “I think he was angry that he didn’t have a dad like other kids.”
Harris said she hoped being part of a team, playing sports or doing karate might help Avery not feel so alone. Last September, Harris signed him up at American Sport Karate Center in Danville and she said the difference in Avery, who now is 6 years old, has been remarkable.
Michael Hendricks, who owns American Sport Karate, said the lessons he and his son, Holden, bring to each class are about more than just karate. He said they also try to build confidence in their young students and teach respect for others.
At first, Harris said, Avery would not get on the mat, but soon, with encouragement from the teachers, he was joining the other children.
“[Hendricks] encourages all of the children,” Harris said. “He takes time with them. Avery doesn’t open up to people, but he opens up to Sensei Mike and Sensei Holden. Now Avery loves it.”
Hendricks explained he wants to bring that encouragement and confidence into the local schools to help tackle the problem of bullying. He also plans to have free classes for children who would like to learn his anti-bullying techniques.
Bullying has become a problem across the nation. According to a 2016 report from the National Center for Educational Statistics, 20% of students said they have been bullied. Hendricks believes martial arts can help children gain the self-assurance they need to not be a victim.
“Martial arts helps with bullying in so many ways,” Hendricks said. “One of the biggest things is that it builds confidence. In my experience, bullies don’t pick on people that are stronger physically or mentally.”
Hendricks added bullies very seldom want a physical fight. The center report agrees by pointing out that, of those who reported they were bullied, only 5% were physically pushed, shoved, spit on or tripped. Instead, he explained, bullies want to intimidate their victim by picking on their weaknesses.
“Times have changed,” Hendricks said. “What used to be a fight on the school playground has turned into insults on social media.
“It’s hard for kids to turn the other cheek and pretend that words don’t hurt. Words do hurt,” he added. “We would much rather take a beating in our face than a beating in our mind. Words do hurt but if you have the right tools, and you know what to do when someone throws those words at you, you are better off.”
Hendricks said he tries to convey that message to all of his students.
“It’s just like when you know what to do if someone throws a fist at you. You defend against words the same way you defend against a fight. I am as much about words as about fists.”
Instead of escalating the fight, Hendricks said there are methods to, hopefully, make the bully walk away. It is an important skill, he explained, that can help many of the local children. “I would like to hold free bully prevention classes before the school year starts again,” he added.
“Kids have to know how to stand up for themselves.” Hendricks said schools can only do so much.
“Having your mom go to school and yell at the principal is not going to help you when you are on Facebook or standing in the lunch line,” he said. “Children have to develop skills to handle the bullies themselves.”
He currently is working with the Martinsville School District to offer his bully prevention class to their students.
“We support what Mr. Hendricks is doing,” said Zebedee Talley Jr., Martinsville superintendent. Talley added they are early in the process of making the project a reality for Martinsville.
Talley explained bullying is not as big a problem in Martinsville as it is in other areas. “We are blessed to have a great, safe culture and environment, but we think all schools should look at anti-bullying programs even if they don’t have a big problem. They should all take a look at student security and make sure that no one is being bullied. That includes members of your staff.”
Talley added programs like the one Hendricks is offering might keep bullying from becoming a bigger problem. “We are elated to be part of the process and we look forward to working with those entities that bring in programs to benefit our students.”
He added that, when young people feel safe, they learn better and are happier.
“Even if your school is not having problems, make sure that you go ahead with a preemptive strike. I think all schools should invest their time in programs like this.”
According to Danville Schools Superintendent Stanley Jones, people believe bullying is a school problem. He explained that is not the case.
“The issue of bullying is a community wide issue,” said Jones. “The schools play a role in it. The parents play a role in it. The community plays a role in it. Kids play a role in it. If we are going to address bullying, everybody has got to come to the table.”
With training that helps teachers monitor students’ social and emotional well being, an anonymous text and tip line and programs that search social media, Jones said Danville Public Schools have tools in place to capture threatening and bullying behavior inside or outside of school hours.
“First we have to know about [it],” he said. “The fact that we know about it helps us take preventative measures.”
Jones said parents also need to take an active role to stop any harassment.
“Parents can monitor their kids social media. The phone belongs to most parents, not the kids. If parents know what their kids are doing on social media, that will address a lot of the bullying. Kids are in school only seven hours a day. Most bullying doesn’t occur during that time.”
Jones added he commends Hendricks for trying to be part of the solution.
Hendricks said when he schedules his free bully defense classes he will post the dates on the American Sport Karate Center’s Facebook page and on the website at www.danvillekarate.com.
For more information, reach Hendrick at (434) 549-5093.