Bob Horton: Cop goes online to help kids cope with bullying
As I begin my 11th year of writing for this paper, I want to start with a correction and an apology.
Last week I wrote about the various challenges that face Fred Camillo as he becomes first selectman. When writing about the town Parking Services Division, I said that former state Rep. Michael Bocchino worked for LAZ, a large operator of municipal parking organizations. I was wrong. Bocchino does not work for LAZ. I regret the error, and I apologize to Bocchino.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Time spent with friends and family, preparing a feast and then sitting around eating and talking for several hours creates memories, many of which become each family’s cherished lore. That is why this week I am telling the story of Stephane Smarth, a Stamford cop who runs a non-profit organization dedicated to helping kids ward off bullies and educating parents about how to help their children cope with the pain and humiliation of being bullied.
Smarth came to this work through a tragedy many people in Greenwich remember well. In 2013, Smarth lived with his family in Byram; his youngest brother was friends with a neighbor, Beata Palosz. Beata’s younger brother, Bart, was the young boy who took his own life after the first day of his sophomore year at Greenwich High School in 2013. Bart had been bullied for years.
“My family moved around a lot. Coming into a new school environment, bullying was something I dealt with. I was bullied, but never to the extent that I could not handle it,” Smarth said during an interview this week.
“I lived right around the corner from the Palosz family. It felt too close to home for me not to do something about it.”
Smarth created an anti-bullying program, called Bully Proofing, built on his expertise in martial arts and his degree in psychology. The now 35-year-old police officer is a three time lightweight division champion in Muay Thai and is pursuing an advanced degree in industrial psychology at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.
“I had been practicing Muay Thai for years,” Smarth told me.
“Muay Thai had given me a place where I belonged, where I became part of a larger community. The feeling of security you get from being part of something larger than yourself is a great way to build self-confidence and self-esteem.”
Smarth is quick to say that Muay Thai is not about fighting. “We are taught to never use our skills for bad,” he said. “But it gives you a great feeling of security if you know how to protect yourself.”
The anti-bullying crusader said he gave his first presentation at Greenwich High School, just a few months after Bart Palosz’s death. From 2013 to 2017 he pursued a mixed martial arts career and ran his Bully Proofing programs through presentations in school and community centers around Fairfield County.
In 2017, Smarth said, he came to the attention of a Stamford police officer who successfully recruited him to a career in law enforcement. “It is a job in which I can still help kids, while also extending my reach into the community,” he said.
Between attending the state Police Academy and the hectic pace of his first years on the Stamford force, Smarth put his anti-bullying work on the back burner.
“Just recently, I decided it was time to re-kindle my program,” he said. “Parents kept asking me about it, and I knew the need was still there. We’re never going to stop bullying, but we can help kids and parents cope with it.”
These being the digital times they are, this new anti-bullying effort has a bigger internet and social media presence.
Smarth announced the return of his Bully Proofing project on his Facebook page, and owns the internet domain name bullyproofingprevention.com.
“The response was really strong from that very first post on Facebook,” he said. This new version of Bully Proofing is dedicated to the memory of Bart Palosz. Before making that dedication pronouncement, Smarth asked Beata Palosz for her family’s permission to honor Bart.
“Stephane has created a program that is something I’ve wanted to do, but have not been financially able to do,” Palosz said. She is now the volunteer marketing director for Bully Proofing.
“Not only is it creating a community where kids will be able to express their feelings about bullies and being bullied, but we will also help parents and teachers learn how to recognize the warning signs coming from bullying victims,” she said.
“I feel like Bart could have really benefited from a program like this. He would have been better able to express himself, and we would have been able to read the signs that he was in distress,” she added.
Bullyproofingprevention.com will go live in mid-December, Smarth said, as will its Instagram and Facebook presences.
This new version of Bully Proofing will offer a more robust website with information for parents and adults and be a digital place for kids to feel safe to talk about their experiences.
The program is also expanding its workshops to include dance, other martial arts and tennis.
If you want more information or want to get involved with Bully Proofing, Smarth’s email address is email@example.com.