Giving kids a chance in the fight against bullying

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WACH) - A unique intervention program in Columbia is looking to stomp out bullying by attacking it head-on before the problem gets out of control.

J'Air Atkins is part of that program. The sixth grader is learning to channel his frustrations because recently that's been a problem for the 11-year-old. He's been the target of bullies and it's caused some fights in school.

"They think that because they're older than me that they're bigger and better than me," said Atkins.

The Columbia boy skipped a grade and is smaller than most of his classmates. His mother Sarita Fuller says that has made him a target and it's impacting his behavior.

Fuller says her son feels the need to prove himself and confrontations with bullies have earned J'Air a suspension from school.

"He's had issues at school, disrespect of adults. Basically, he just feels as if he's grown," said Fuller.

Her son is one of a handful of boys who have either been bullied, are bullies, or are otherwise labeled "at risk" in a Midlands intervention program called C.H.A.N.C.E. Lance Adams, a fourth-degree black belt, founded the program which stands for Changing Habitual Actions Through Non-Violent Combat Arts Education. He conducts the diversion program at his Columbia dojo.

The ten-week program uses martial arts not to teach young people how to fight, rather Adams is teaching discipline and teamwork, something that turned his life around when he was the same age.

"I did have an ego, arrogance, whatever the case may be," said Adams. "But, martial arts quickly showed me how I wasn't as bad as I thought I was."

Adams is also a Richland County deputy who serves as a school resource officer, giving him a first-hand view of the dangers of bullying. The threat goes well beyond the school hallways. Young people are constantly bombarded, not only in person, but online through social media like Facebook and Twitter, extending the reach of the traditional schoolyard bully.

"They (students) don't want to tell their parents about it. They don't want to tell their teacher about it because they're afraid they're not going to be believe them," said Adams. "And they don't want to tell other students about it because they're afraid they're going to be ridiculed for it."

Statistics on bullying show one-third of students have been bullied at some point in the last year, and incidents are at their peak among middle schoolers. However, those numbers only represent the young people who admit they've been bullied.

"One of the most effective ways of dealing with bullying is getting people talking about it and if you can create a community where if an incident happens people talk about it," said Dr. Brad Smith, a USC clinical and community psychology expert .

Smith has seen bullying play out with his own daughters and points out the signs a young person is being targeted will show up in their personality.

The victims of bullying can develop low self-esteem, show signs of aggression and have difficulty controlling anger, and become isolated. Experts also say victims can start avoiding activities they once liked, simply to stay away from their tormentors.

However, Smith points out the targets aren't the only people who are experiencing trouble.

"These kids that are doing the bullying are often a real at-risk kid," said Smith. "A lot of them are bullying because they've been picked on or they've been exposed to violence and that 's how they handle their frustrations. So, a lot of times, these bullies need a lot of help."

Smith says there is great value to intervention programs like the one Adams is conducting that offer a proactive approach to dealing with behavioral problems, rather than handing out punishments after the issue has had a chance to fester.

"What happens a lot of times if a kid's a bully they get expelled from school, or suspended from school, that isolates them further," said Smith. "It puts them behind in school. You give kids like that a positive outlet, a positive adult to work with, that's fantastic."

Lance Adams is reaching out to a wide cross-section of young people dealing with a variety of issues, hoping to instill a positive value system as soon as there are signs of trouble.

Parents like Sarita Fuller hope it turns the tide.

"I think that this right now is a pivotal moment," said Fuller. "I really feel like middle school, sixth grade especially, is that turning point for kids."

And a point where Lance Adams is hoping to give young people like Fuller's son, J'Air, a chance to become young men.

"Once they see that it's not all about them, then they realize and they change and these kids open up to you and tell you the reasons why they are doing these things."