Battling bullying: Martial arts teach kids to fight without throwing punches
FARGO - Abbie Bennefeld was 13 years old when she was out for a walk and a 26-year-old stranger approached her from his vehicle.
"I felt vulnerable and scared," says Bennefeld, who is now 15.
The Gary, Minn., teen said she never wanted to feel that way again, so after doing some Internet research, she decided to enroll in classes at Fargo Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.
She had taken taekwondo in elementary school but wanted to do something different, something that packed a different type of punch.
"She said, 'I definitely think I want to do some damage,' " says Abbie's mom, Wendy Bennefeld.
At first, Abbie was the only girl in a class full of 20-year-old men, but she stuck with it and has become more confident, decisive, and responsible.
"We are so proud of her," Bennefeld says. "She's going to make mistakes, because every kid makes mistakes, but between us and the tools she's getting in jiujitsu, we're going to put out the most self-confident young woman that we can."
Fargo Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, located on 13th Avenue South, has a program that teaches kids to fight bullies without punching and kicking.
Their Bully Proof classes teach kids to stay calm in stressful situations and use leverage and technique to subdue their opponents.
Jiujitsu is a martial art more similar to wrestling, so it's a good way to teach kids how to get away if someone is holding or pinning them down, says George Andersch, who owns Fargo Brazilian Jiu-jitsu with his wife, Sarah.
"If they are on the ground, on their backs, that's where jiujitsu takes place, so to know that they have tons of options when they're on the ground, to be able to get back up and get away, it's just invaluable," Sarah Andersch says.
The classes also help build confidence and self-esteem in students, says Sarah Andersch, who has been teaching jiujitsu classes to children for several years and also has a background as a school counselor.
"The beauty of Brazilian jiujitsu is it is a little bit different as a concept of self-defense or bully-proofing," she says. "We don't look at striking at all as being an option."
First, kids are taught to remain calm and try to talk their way out of the situation. They work on communicating with confidence, which is a skill most kids have to learn, Sarah Andersch says. They also stress not to use jiujitsu unless it's a true emergency and they are being physically harmed.
Jiujitsu uses dominant holds to secure or restrain an opponent without hurting them.
"I always tell kids we don't even consider hitting or kicking in terms of self-defense because it's probably not going to work; it's going to make the situation worse," Sarah Andersch says.
Avoiding physical violence and learning to defend yourself without hitting and kicking is especially important in a school setting.
"You have a school society with the rules of school, and that makes it different than street self-defense," George Andersch said.
Fargo Brazilian Jiu-jitsu has offered the program for two and a half years and has instructed 50 kids in that time.
A lot of the basic positions are taught through games. And the business tries to make the classes fun. Even so, because of the close contact involved, classes can become intense.
"Jiujitsu can be overwhelming because you are working on holding people down," Sarah Andersch says. "For kids, especially in self-defense or bully-proofing, being put in a situation where someone is holding you down and remaining calm and confident is exceptionally important."
Some students have joined the program because they were being continually bullied, Sarah Andersch says.
One girl was attacked on the playground by bigger kids and was able to keep herself safe because of what she'd learned in the program. Another was being verbally harassed and learned how to deal with it, Sarah Andersch says.
"We've had the whole spectrum of things happen, unfortunately," she says. "The most important thing is the kids have all come out of it and been safe."
Shannon Bugge-Turman's children joined Fargo Brazilian Jiu-jitsu to learn the martial art and found the bully-proofing component to be an added benefit.
The Moorhead mom said her 7-year-old daughter is more confident and outgoing and has even stood up for others who were being bullied on a bus. "I'm so proud of her, and I don't feel nervous about her riding the bus with older kids because I know she knows how to stand up for herself," Bugge-Turman says.
In March, the North Dakota Legislature passed school bullying legislation that defines bullying and requires school districts to have bullying policies by July 1, 2012. It also requires each school district to provide bullying prevention programs to all K-12 students.
The Fargo School District is going through bullying training, says Nancy Jordheim, assistant superintendent for human resources.
"Most of the intervention that Fargo Schools teaches kids are strategies to get out of it," Jordheim says. "We want kids to feel empowered to act on their own behalf."
The Minnesota Legislature first approved an anti-bullying law in 2005 and amended it two years later. The law requires school boards to adopt a written policy prohibiting intimidation and bullying.
Both Fargo and Moorhead schools have comprehensive policies that prohibit direct bullying and indirectly supporting another student's bullying. Punishments can include suspension and expulsion.
Abbie Bennefeld knows when to ask for help, and she knows when she is in a bullying situation to talk to her parents and principal.
And if she's ever again approached by a stranger with malicious intentions, she feels better prepared to deal with it after her jiujitsu training.
"I know what to do," she says. "I know how to defend myself."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526