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Zarnow: Confidence an inoculation against bullying

Deborah Reisdorph cares an awful lot about someone else's children.

For 20 years, the Huntington Beach attorney litigated employment cases including sexual harassment and wrongful termination, so you might figure she has a crusading streak.

But a string of 33 child suicides in 2010 – all related to bullying – sent her down a slightly different path.

She wondered: "Where was the adult to tell (those kids) ... 'tomorrow is another day?'"

One of those deaths was 13-year-old Seth Walsh, targeted, in part, for being gay. He hung himself from a backyard tree in Tehachapi. As a result, California passed "Seth's Law," which makes school districts partly responsible for providing students with safe places to learn without discrimination, harassment, intimidation or bullying.

Since July, districts must have bully-prevention policies in place. Reisdorph realized they could use a little help. Two years earlier, she had founded Bully Awareness Resistance Education, or BARE, a nonprofit that provides education and training to students, parents and educators.

Bullying, she notes, is harassment on a broader scale.

"So much of what I have already been teaching people in the workplace is much like the classroom. It's just at a younger level."


Bullies expose us to a tough strain of infection, resistant to time. I vividly remember my terror of the boy who tried to steal my Brownie dues each week, and I still wonder why I ran from him but I did not tell anyone about him.

Reisdorph, 51, tells about her own childhood misery after her parents' divorce, starting at a new school and being ridiculed for her conservative clothes. She contemplated suicide. Her only friend introduced her to drugs.

A teacher, and then her mother, helped Reisdorph turn her life around. Now, she wants to do the same for others.

As an attorney, she can counsel school districts about their legal requirements and liability related to bullying and bullying prevention. If school staffers see an incident, they are legally required to intervene. Schools must offer an appeal process.

"If we post a policy on the wall, what good is it if you don't teach them how to implement it?"

Reisdorph's group offers a variety of programs, including professional development for teachers and guidance for parents, to combat bullying. Over the past year, BARE has worked with schools in more than 10 districts.

At Victoria Elementary School in Costa Mesa, for example, BARE offered a workshop that taught teachers how to become aware of bullying incidents, how to respond, and how to teach students what they can do on their own. Then BARE followed up with a meeting for parents – what's a responsible response to a bullying incident?

Reisdorph draws parallels to the workplace. If you don't speak up in the workplace about harassment, she says, there is no liability to the employer. Not telling, she says, does no good.

"If you don't speak up, it will keep happening."


The assemblies and programs for students are the nucleus for change because children are at the heart of it.

The selection for this year's Huntington Beach Reads One Book, "Thirteen Reasons Why," is about bullying. In conjunction with the Huntington Beach Public Library, BARE ( is offering a free, eight-week leadership course for teenagers about making friends. It aims to teach the social skills and self-confidence parents might mistakenly believe their children already have.

If bullying is an infection, confidence is the inoculation.

Bullies want power over others, and they prey on children perceived to be weaker. But Reisdorph says teaching children social (and some physical) skills can lead them out of the "target zone" for bullying.

How do we teach our children to respond when they are bullied, or even to help others?

It comes through preparation. Children need to rehearse what they would do and say. It also comes with self-confidence. That's why instruction in martial arts, with its physical training and self-discipline, is included in BARE programs.

Chris Gregory, 63, a longtime youth coach who chairs the BARE board, created a program to work with athletes. They have the status of school leaders, and are coached to be aggressive – a combination that sometimes results in bullying behavior.

"We teach them to leave (their aggression) on the field," Gregory says.

Gregory changed his coaching techniques and, as a result, counted himself successful in ways that go beyond winning.

Reisdorph believes even the bullies benefit from intervention.

"They bully for a reason. Something is going on in their lives."

She thinks that redirecting a child, and teaching the tools to be successful without bullying others, can make all the difference. Bullies can learn how to be a friend or how to deal with their anger. She has created a program that schools can offer offenders as an alternative to being suspended.

Childhood is a brief window of opportunity. Reisdorph and Gregory have found that when adults are willing to talk with students about issues that touch them, kids respond.

At every BARE event, they ask students to raise their hands if they have ever experienced or witnessed bullying. Always, more than three-quarters of them do.

That's an epidemic.

Reisdorph and Gregory will speak to the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. Information:

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